Racist classics like ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Birth of a Nation’ shouldn’t be freely available sans context

Culture, language and art evolve as society does to incorporate more equitable, just and humane ways of treating each other. Why is this called censorship or an 'Orwellian' act of controlling content?


                            Racist classics like ‘Gone with the Wind’ and ‘Birth of a Nation’ shouldn’t be freely available sans context
From left, Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh (IMDb)

Not long ago, everyone smoked everywhere. People smoked on airplanes. They smoked in movies, in theaters where those movies were screened, inside shops and restaurants. It was part of our culture, with even the women's lib movement claiming the right to smoke as a woman's right.

Now, cities forbid smoking in public spaces. Scenes of smoking in movies come with a boiler-plate disclaimer that 'Smoking is injurious to health'. And yet, no one except the tobacco lobby has really minded it. Smokers have grumbled but know better than push the effects of their toxic habit on others.

Similarly, we have stopped using the word "homosexual" because of the long painful history of the word being used by doctors to brand gay people as mentally unsound and worse, as deviants. It is no longer okay to prance around in blackface on stage for minstrel shows. In fact, we no longer have minstrel shows even if they were 'classics' of their times.    

The point is that culture, language, and art evolves as society evolves to incorporate more equitable, just, and humane ways of behaving towards each other. But after HBO Max removed 'Gone With the Wind' from its roster with its nostalgia for the antebellum South and derogatory slave stereotypes in characters like Mammy, it was called an act of censorship and an 'Orwellian' act of controlling content. Similarly, Disney+ placed warnings about “outdated cultural depictions” on films like 'Dumbo', 'The Aristocats', 'Lady and the Tramp' and 'Jungle Book', while, over the pond, 'Little Britain' is being pulled.

These are all good things. It shows we have grown up as a society. Why then is there such a hue and cry? Most arguments can be listed under the 'culturally and historically significant' head. In short, it is a "beloved classic". But beloved for whom actually? Similarly, another tremendously racist silent film, D. W. Griffith's 'The Birth of a Nation' glorified the Ku Klux Klan and has been controversial since its release. When black men and women protested and said it should be pulled from theaters, Griffiths made a film called 'Intolerance' to protest against, what else, but censorship. 

Free speech and liberty that artists have should be curtailed when it becomes hate speech or propaganda. So how do you treat such "classics" like 'The Birth of a Nation' that also pioneered long-length complex storytelling, and techniques like close-ups, fade-outs, and filming battle sequences innovatively? The way we treat German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda film 'Triumph of the Will' can give us a clue.

'Triumph of the Will' is studied by film students for its techniques rather than its content and the film is contextualized in an academic setting before people watch it. It is not your regular fare that is available on your streaming platform or at nostalgic screenings at your local movie theater. It is shown only with a significant discussion of its problematic themes and an understanding that they are not to be celebrated. 

If we understand why this is necessary and not see it as censorship, why are we not willing to treat 'Gone With the Wind' or 'The Birth of a Nation'  in the same way? If we want to watch 'Gone With the Wind', it should be shorn of any romanticism or nostalgia for that time and era. If that means we have to read a disclaimer or watch a little something about how racist the film is, it should not be an occasion for a tantrum, but rather an acknowledgment that our culture has evolved.

Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article belong to the writer and are not necessarily shared by MEAWW.