Although some of the chatter has made it sound like HBO is trying to memoryhole Gone with the Wind forever, it is planning to return the film to its roster soon. A spokesperson tells WIRED that HBO will include “a discussion of its historical context” and a denouncement of the film’s racist depictions. As to what exactly that will look like, the company hasn’t elaborated, but there are models out there already. Disney+, for example, places warnings about “outdated cultural depictions” on some of its older movies. Charles Tabesh, the programmer for Turner Classic Movies, agrees with the decision to add context. “It was smart of them to temporarily pull it in, but also smart of them to put the proper context around it and then bring it back,” he says. TCM is the cable channel that plays Gone with the Wind most frequently. Tabesh says that TCM has been in talks with HBO about how it could introduce the film, as TCM had previously aired Gone with the Wind with historical context. “We will always acknowledge in the introduction that it’s a fundamentally racist premise to the film,” Tabesh says. “That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be seen.”
It’s very hard to find a controversial, successful Hollywood film that has truly been disappeared forever. For example, the much-loathed 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, is available to stream on Sling and Kanopy, it has been uploaded for free to YouTube, and DVDs and Blu-rays are available from major retailers like Amazon. (It’s way harder to find Kevin Smith’s 1999 comedy Dogma than it is The Birth of a Nation.) Disney’s Song of the South is probably the most famous example of a racist movie locked away, and film historians and critics continue to debate whether shelving the film entirely is the right move.
Last year, film critic Aramide A. Tinubu suggested that it would be more educational to present Song of the South and other racist parodies from Disney’s past on the Disney+ service under a parental lock and with a disclaimer. “Unpacking how, why, and when these projects were made would provide context for newcomers and those who haven’t seen these films in decades. It would offer an opportunity for growth, conversation, and healing,” Tinubu writes. “But, by sweeping these issues under the rug, Disney suggests they would rather shut the door on their past atrocities than take the time and space to learn, grow, and evolve from them.”
This is a compelling argument, and if Time Warner was attempting to lock Gone with the Wind away entirely, it would certainly be one worth discussing. But that is not what is happening here. The novel element about this round of shouting about Gone with the Wind is how much the anger has been directed at HBO Max. The controversy may stem from what appears to be a widespread misunderstanding of what HBO Max is. This is somewhat understandable, as HBO Max is confusing—it’s the company’s third streaming service, joining HBO Now and HBO Go, and the messaging about what makes it different has been muddled. But despite what some of the protests around Gone with the Wind may suggest, HBO Max is not a stewardship project meant to preserve historically relevant cinema.
The United States actually does have something like that—the National Film Registry, which is the US National Film Preservation Board’s picks for historically, culturally, or aesthetically significant films. The NFR lobbies for the survival, conservation, and increased availability of the films on its list, and Gone with the Wind has been on it since 1989. Moreover, the NFR has given no indication that it will remove it. Gone with the Wind hasn’t needed much help being preserved, either, as it was first regularly screened in theaters before the advent of television, went on to enjoy a robust life airing regularly on Ted Turner’s TV stations after the mogul purchased its airing rights in the ‘80s. It is now widely available for rental and purchase online through mainstream platforms like YouTube, Amazon, Apple, Google Play, Redbox, and more. It is also available for free on the Internet Archive.
Efforts to contextualize Gone with the Wind for modern audiences are certainly worth discussing and debating. Is it illiberal babying to insist that viewers sit through a spiel about how being racist is bad before settling in to watch Scarlett O’Hara traipse around Atlanta for seven thousand hours? Maybe! Attempts to bowdlerize racist, misogynistic, or sexually explicit art are often corny failures. (Does the name Tipper Gore ring a bell?) Even when they’re necessary, they can make audiences feel like they are being condescended to. They can suck. But they’re not censorship.
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