12 Years a Slave writer John Ridley urged HBO Max to stop streaming Gone with the Wind. “It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that perpetuates painful stereotypes of people of color,” he says. He’s not wrong about the film’s depiction of race and pre-war Southern life. But the film exists, and it’s an important part of American cultural history. Any thinking person watching Gone with the Wind today will likely find it an interesting, albeit often offensive, relic of old Hollywood. No one will find it realistic. In a generation or two, I suspect no one will even care to see it. But the inclination to stop Americans from viewing problematic images, rather than pointing out their flaws, is a destructive one. Once we start dictating what is and isn’t permissible to see, there will be no bottom. The list of potentially problematic books, art, and movies is massive.
It was first reported that HBO Max surrendered to the culture warriors and removed the movie (as we move away from physical ownership of movies, and towards streaming services, we have less control over what we can see), but the company is actually bringing it back with a disclaimer. That’s better, though still unneeded. Obviously companies can slap any kind of warning on films they desire, but disclaimers infantilize viewers who are perfectly capable of grappling with context and history. I’m relatively confident my understanding of pre–Civil War America will be as good as any editorial person writing up the disclaimer for HBO Max. And even if it isn’t, I’ll figure it out.
We don’t need a disclaimer on Gone with the Wind any more than we need them Mark Twain’s books or movies based on Kipling’s stories. I run across anti-Semitic stereotypes in literature all the time. I don’t need you to repudiate Shakespeare’s or Dickens’ portrayal of Jews, because I get it. I don’t need you to cancel Roald Dahl or Evelyn Waugh even if they occasionally trafficked in bigotry. They’re both dead. Their work isn’t. They were geniuses. We’re adults.
Gone with the Wind is historic document for a number of reasons. It was one of the most popular films ever made. Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar. The screenplay was written by the great journalist and writer Ben Hecht, an early advocate of both civil rights and Jewish self-determination. In many ways, the movie shows us how far we’ve come. Trying to erase history is one a characteristics of an illiberal society. We have no reason to engage in it.