In these times, streaming classic movies —which had already gained popularity before the pandemic—has become essential for movie fans. Providers of these services, for their part, also have the power to decide what to offer. This is not much in terms of new productions, since many have postponed their release dates. However, these companies also have vast collections of classic films, a potential treasure for older audiences willing to enjoy them again. For younger audiences interested in cinema as an art form, those classic movies provide a valuable source about its evolution.
However, watching classic movies from a bygone era presents sometimes a problem. A kind of cultural disjointedness may occur, particularly while today’s audiences are confronted with movies containing views that may be at odds with contemporary values. One typical case was that of “Gone with the Wind” the classic 1939 film directed by Victor Fleming and set during the American Civil War. Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh were the main characters in that romantic story. However, later, Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) has caught much attention: she was the black servant and somehow confidant of the beautiful Scarlett O’Hara, the plantation owner’s daughter. The film has been categorized as racist for its portrayal of blacks and a veiled sympathetic depiction of slave-owners’ Southerners. Thus, HBO decided to remove the movie this past summer, in the middle of the protests for the killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement’s rise. The streaming company announced then that the movie would eventually be reinstated with a “new introduction by Black scholar and television host Jacqueline Stewart.”
The Walt Disney Studios, through its streaming service Disney+, acted more drastically completely excluding its “Song of the South” from its catalogue. In a statement issued last year, Disney executive chairman Bob Iger said that the movie was “not appropriate in today’s world.” The 1946 film, that combined live-action and animation, featured James Baskett as Uncle Remus, a black old man working in a plantation during the so-called reconstruction period in the American south. Uncle Remus enjoyed telling stories to Johnny, a white boy, while blacks were portrayed as having a happy life there. The movie, denounced as racist, can no longer be seen on Disney+ although at the time it was very successful. Its song “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” composed by Allie Wrubel with lyrics by Ray Gilbert, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
While an undeniable racist undertone can be detected in “Song of the South,” other decisions by Disney recently made public might be more controversial. The corporation decided to remove from its children section classic movies such as “Peter Pan”, “Dumbo”, and “The Aristocats.” The reason given was that they “promote damaging stereotypes.” The films will still be available in the general section.
I am puzzled by the case of “Peter Pan,” a beautiful 1953 animation film which strangely, will not be available for children, and is accused of stereotyping indigenous people. I find that on the contrary, it presents a sympathetic view of them. In one part of the story, the tribe’s chief’s daughter was kidnapped by villain Captain Hook, and Peter rescued her. The chief actually appreciated Peter and the film portrayed the indigenous man in a dignified way.
For their part, “Dumbo” (1941) and “The Aristocats” (1970) were removed due to scenes where, indirectly, Afro-Americans and Asians, respectively, were depicted stereotypically. Of course, cinema—and all its current video variants—with its combination of image, words, and music is a powerful medium. In that capacity, it might exert great influence on people, especially young children. However, freedom of expression too is a significant value to consider and to which children should also be introduced. While it seems evident that expressions aimed at belittling, humiliating, or promoting hate against a group in society should be banned, depictions of events as they were perceived at a particular time should be approached differently. They may be accompanied by some explanatory introduction outlining the period’s cultural circumstances, as some streaming companies are already doing. Banning a film, however, should only happen after a thorough examination of the issues. After all, censorship—a threat that filmmakers have traditionally faced—should not be reinforced either. But certainly, these are complex times, and often it’s hard to balance respect for groups historically oppressed and the freedom necessary for artistic creation.
Feature image: Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and her servant Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) in “Gone with the Wind”: submissive blacks and a sympathetic look at slave-owner Southerners led HBO to remove the classic film