So we interrupt the regular Movie Crash Course semester for a special announcement.
It seems that HBO’s streaming service, HBO Max, has made the decision to temporarily pull some films from its library in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the growing support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The films in question are ones with a…perspective on racial history in America which has as of late become problematic. They plan to re-introduce them later, after adding some title cards or contextualizing discussing the racial attitudes that pose problems.
One of the films that Film Twitter are having a snit about is Gone With The Wind. “It’s an historic film!” they are squealing. “It’s the first African-American Oscar Winner! HBO pulling it is just caving into the libs!” A couple people have pulled up the point that Hattie McDaniel’s birthday is this same day, and are hand-wringing over how she might have felt knowing that the movie where she won her Oscar was being singled out in this way on her birthday.
Here’s the thing, though.
The movie isn’t going away permanently. It’s still available for streaming on many other services – Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play all show it as an option. DVDs of the film also exist – I got a copy on DVD via Netflix’s DVD rental, and early reports show that Amazon is currently making a killing selling copies of the DVD now because of HBO’s ban. This is not the complete and utter Orwellian erasure that the doomsayers are saying it is.
And again, this is a temporary move on HBO Max’s part. They are figuring out how to provide proper context for the film for future viewers – much the same way that Warner Brothers added a statement to its screenings of older cartoons with problematic racial stereotypes. “While not representing the Warner Bros. view of today’s society,” the statement explains, “these [films] are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.” Arguably that doesn’t even go far enough. But it’s something – it’s a reminder, before you watch, that some of this stuff is really, really not cool. (Warner Brothers also is sitting on eleven shorts that it most likely will not show again no matter what because of how racist they are.)
And speaking of Hattie McDaniel – it’s true that she did win the Best Supporting Actress playing Mammy. But the film fans who point to this fact seem to think that the mere token acknowledgement of her performance somehow negates the problems with the film. “You can’t say it’s prejudiced, it’s got a black character!” the argument seems to be. But this is treating Hattie McDaniel’s presence in the film like a shield preventing the film from being criticized on its other qualities – and it is by its other qualities that it is being judged. Consider: if all that mattered when it came to a film’s significance was whether anyone of color won an Oscar in it, we have Lupita N’yongo winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Twelve Years A Slave as well. Heck, she was also playing a house servant on a plantation as Hattie McDaniel did. But no one would equate Twelve Years A Slave with Gone With The Wind simply because they both have Best Supporting Actress award winners who played house servants; that’d be like saying Children Of Paradise is like It because they both have clowns. So falling back on Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar as a way to defend Gone With The Wind smacks of the old “but I can’t be racist if I have a black friend” trope, and is missing the point of HBO’s move.
…There’s also the anecdote that even though Hattie McDaniel won that Oscar, she was not allowed to sit at the same table with her co-stars at the awards ceremony, but was instead relegated to a table in the back all on her own. In fact, if her agent hadn’t cut a deal with the venue – then a whites-only establishment – she might not have even been allowed to attend at all. McDaniel also wasn’t allowed to attend the premiere of Gone With The Wind, because its world premiere was in Atlanta, Georgia, at a time when Atlanta had strict segregation laws. Producer David Selznick tried to get her into the theater, but MGM told him to drop it, since even if Selznick had succeeded McDaniel would have had to sit in the “colored” section of the theater anyway.
This is all the kind of information that HBO is considering adding to its future presentations of Gone With The Wind, when it returns that film to its library (and you note that I do say “when”). If I believe anything about the films I’ve been watching, I believe that the context in which they were made and the context in which you watch them can have a huge impact – so much so that the less you know about the history of the film you’re watching, or the time in which it was made, the more likely it is that you’re watching a completely different film than the one that the original creators intended to make. In most cases, that’s perfectly fine, and in many cases that can’t be helped. But I still think it’s important to try to learn about a film’s context and history; the worst thing that happens is that maybe the things you’ve learned change your opinion. But that kind of thing happens to all of us as we change and grow. It’s also possible, too, that maybe you’ll come away from this with a greater respect for Hattie McDaniel than you had before, for keeping to such a standard of professionalism and dignity even when she was being horribly mistreated on what should have been a historic night. Either way you’ll come away as a more educated person – and that should be something we all want.