According to CNN and multiple news sources, HBO Max, the newest mega-streaming service, has made a decision to remove the massively successful and controversial film from its library. For now. The streamer has said it "will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions."
There is outrage from many sides of many issues on this one. But in the end, it could be a win for everyone involved. We'll get to why shortly.
Gone with the Wind is arguably the most successful feature film of all time. It's also deeply problematic on many levels. This actually makes it very reflective of the nation that spawned it.
But there are major questions we must ask about this removal, the role of this film in our history, and how issues like this are handled. We are living in a moment in 2020 that feels almost like a Civil War revisited. Surely this choice will be politicized by both sides in the all-out culture war that we are currently witnessing.
The removal came after this op-ed from John Ridley who wrote among other things, "Let me be real clear: I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t think Gone with the Wind should be relegated to a vault in Burbank. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were. Or, perhaps it could be paired with conversations about narratives and why it’s important to have many voices sharing stories from different perspectives rather than merely those reinforcing the views of the prevailing culture." Ridley won an academy award for adapting 12 Years a Slave.
'Gone with the Wind'
Gone with the Wind is a product of its time, and arguably a product of a time before that. Margaret Mitchell's sweeping Civil War Era epic novel was published in 1936. MGM quickly obtained the movie rights and turned it into an era-defining movie event that still holds the record for most tickets sold.
Mitchell's influence was her family's ideas of the antebellum south. Her perspective is unique to a wealthy white woman, born to a well-off family that had fond memories of that world. Mitchell was raised on those stories through that lens, and this perspective on those events shaped her and shaped the story she would tell. Similarly, the film itself is a reflection of the social views of 1939. One must recall that 1939 was a time of segregation in the United States. Jim Crow Laws still reigned in the South. 1939 was not a time of equality for people of color. Not by a long shot.
On the one hand, limiting access to a movie like Gone with the Wind without proper historical context seems to be an easy call. The argument against it will be one against the idea of censorship. Of course, HBO is well within their right to pull the film. Many will look to the idea of freedom of speech or expression. The reality of that is more complicated than most people realize, from uscourts.gov, "The U.S. Supreme Court often has struggled to determine what exactly constitutes protected speech."
That's putting it mildly.
The important thing here is to focus on the endgame: having a version of Gone with the Wind available to stream with a full historical context. This doesn't actually harm anyone, it makes the film available and it also makes sure audiences learn how to appreciate it in its proper context. This would help with any old movie. As time goes on, great works of art become dated in ways both big and small. In some instances, they become so dated that they become challenging to decipher.
'Gone with the Wind'
We would be lost without those who put the effort into deciphering and explaining the proper context of all works of art. From Homer to Margaret Mitchell. It's hard for you and me to relate to the world of Ancient Greece. After all, the battle for Troy was in 1260 BC. I think the social and political values were slightly different then. I might not be able to relate to Achilles and his story unless someone properly contextualized it all for me. Then perhaps I can look past certain elements of his tale to value those that still can be applicable or those that add to the story.
We should celebrate the call to further educate and contextualize. Ignore that Gone with the Wind will be off HBO Max for a little while. If you need to see it in the meantime you can find it elsewhere. Once it's back, it'll come with assets and information that will benefit the movie itself for generations to come.
Because let's not forget that Gone with the Wind has other problems. That famous love scene between Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler? It's uh... basically rape.
The more you look at old movies through the modern lens the more issues you will find. Not just social issues, but human decency issues. Issues that might make a hero seem like a villain by today's standards.
If you are crying out against the censorship of Gone with the Wind because you love the movie and you want people to see it, trust me—this will help more people see it and even better, help more people appreciate it. Not so they can look past the fact that Rhett Butler is a bad person by today's standards, but so they can judge him according to his era. Otherwise, ignorance will reign. Ignorance of all kinds.
Achilles is a hero for the ages, but if he lived today he'd be a monster.
A personal note, not long ago I showed my son The Empire Strikes Back. Han Solo, who has more than a little bit of Rhett Butler's cinematic DNA, isn't exactly appropriate in his behavior towards Princess Leia. It's important to me that my son understand that's not an okay way to behave towards women, but for him also to understand that it was considered appropriate when Han Solo did it and while we can emulate Han's heroism in some areas, we can't emulate that specific behavior.
The world is a complicated place, the answer is not to rely on simple solutions. The answer is to dig deeper and educate further. With more context and more information, we can actually appreciate more movies on more levels.