When I was in film school, I had to make a decision about Birth of a Nation. Not Nate Parker’s project. The three-hour long 1915 silent film.
Like most Americans, I had never watched the film before film school but I knew what it was about. You know what it’s about. The first blockbuster in American cinematic history is about the Ku Klux Klan restoring order to a post-Civil War South overran with uppity blacks. The film’s antagonist is emphasized to be a “crafty mulatto,” suggesting yet another tie with race and intelligence that doesn’t exist. It would be fair to say a black person may not want to see that.
But because I intended to study film and in particular, the history and portrayals of African Americans in American cinema, I decided I needed to watch this film. So I checked out the laserdisc from USC’s cinema library and watched all three hours. D.W. Griffith was one of USC’s first film instructors, so the library kept all his films in its vault.
It deserved all the praise it got.
This is my objective opinion about a film about the Klan. The same Klan that lynched one of my ancestors. The same Klan that terrorized my home state for nearly 150 years. A film that glorifies them deserves to be preserved at all costs.
I was just as shocked as you.
One of the film’s pioneering tactics was the invention of the tracking shot. A move so ingrained in modern filmmaking, it’s hard to imagine shooting anything without it. While costuming was something Griffith’s contemporary Cecil DeMille cared more about, even I was impressed by how well the Klan robes flowed against the horses. The Ku Klux Klan was literal white knights coming to save the day.
The truth is that the past sucked. But how can we justify liking something so problematic?
Easy. Take Gone with the Wind, the book and the movie basic bitches loved before Twilight. It’s a film that advances the Lost Cause myth and it shows slaves content in their servitude. Margaret Mitchell was born in Atlanta and was less than two generations from the Civil War, so by the time she wrote Gone with the Wind, the Lost Cause myth was firmly planted into the minds of nostalgic white Southerners. But Gone with the Wind has many problems. Even “Saintly Melanie” is a slave owner who didn’t want her son going to school with black children. And there’s a rape. And an attempted rape. Twice. And a Klan rally to protect the virtue of white women.
Also, Rhett was in his mid-30s when meets the 16-year-old Scarlett. And Scarlett’s second husband was an even older man waiting for her younger sister. So…you got that, too.
The problem? Gone with the Wind is really, really good! Like, one of the best films in the history of cinema good. It is so good, it stood out in a year considered one of the best years in the history of cinema.
It may take you several times to realize just how good this movie is. Everything from how unappealing Ashley becomes postbellum to the O’Haras practicing Catholicism in secret (The Church was anti-slavery at that point) to the madam Belle Watling’s unrequited love for Rhett to Scarlett’s secret drinking to the horrors of war to the changing fashions from a world of excess to a post-war frugalness to Rhett and Scarlett’s failing marriage because they are both garbage people who deserve each other. Gone with the Wind even sets the stage for other Southern feminist works such as The Color Purple, Steel Magnolias, and Fried Green Tomatoes. And it passes the Bechdel test. Seriously.
Is GWTW a war movie, a drama, an epic, a romantic story, a film with a strong female lead? All of the above. Enjoy it guilt-free.
Then you have a movie like Song of the South, a film Disney likes to pretend doesn’t exist. And at first glance, the film doesn’t look that bad. But somewhere between the big house and the shacks the blacks stay in, it hits you. These are newly emancipated slaves that are still serving their former master. And the plantation owners act like it’s business as usual. No amount of singing negroes will get rid of that sinking feeling of racial and class inequality.
Also, the guy that wrote the Br’er Rabbit stories down was white, like some sort of racist Brother Grimm. You could argue he had good intentions when he wrote the stories down, but given the strong influence from older African tales like Anansi the Spider, some black person would have eventually written them down at some point.
So why does Song of the South gets shoved deep into the Disney vault but Gone with the Wind still has fan fiction written about it? It’s because Song of the South was a technological achievement, but it was a mediocre film. The story is as white bread as its little boy protagonist. It took a while for Disney to get the same magic into their live-action films. Not every live-action Disney film can be Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks.
Song of the South and Gone with the Wind take place in the same era, but Song of the South glosses over just how apocalyptic that era was. Also, there is a possibility that some former slaves didn’t leave the plantation because they didn’t know where to go. Where would YOU go if you were suddenly evicted?
Just how much of our media is problematic?
Nearly all of it. Music is a good example.
A lot of people like to bemoan that R&B is not what it used to be. Whatever decade they feel most nostalgic for, that was the best decade for R&B. Today’s R&B is all about sex. Yesteryear’s R&B was more romantic. Most of us ignore, however, that yesteryear’s R&B had a lot of songs where the man was begging for sex or a long-term relationship. Even when she’s said no. Even when she’s already in a committed relationship. As much as I love Marvin Gaye’s songs, “Sexual Healing” is literally a man begging for sex based on a case of blue balls. There’s even the often forgotten or clipped lyric informing the woman to not procrastinate because “it’s not good to masturbate.” Not according to modern medicine, but okay. Twenty years later, Ne-Yo (another singer I love) will continue that tradition of comparing a need for sex with a medical condition in “Because of You.”
In fact, with the exception of diva songs like “I’m Every Woman” or “Respect” (side note: “Respect” used to be a completely different song), some of the more progressive R&B songs involve either a man loving a woman who gets around or finding some escape from an oppressive system, usually by toxic means.
Don’t get me wrong, R&B has been consistently awesome since Robert Johnson was hitting on other men’s wives. While there are few songs on the creepy level of “Every Breath You Take,” R&B has its problematic streak.
What about problematic creators?
I’m gonna ignore R. Kelly and Bill Cosby. They are persona non grata, or as we black folks like to say, their cookout privileges have been revoked. Instead, I’m gonna focus on dead people not named Michael Jackson. Let’s discuss R&B legends Sam Cooke and Chuck Berry.
Sam Cooke may have died trying to rape someone. The black community was dealing with a lot of shit at the time, so the story has entered unconfirmed legend status, like whether Robert Johnson was poisoned by a jealous husband or not.
Yes, I am proud of myself for two Robert Johnson references.
But back to Sam Cooke. If he did try to rape a woman and physically attack the older black woman who shot him, then he got what he deserved. Even so, Cooke was married with children and died on a motel lobby floor with no pants. A rock star death. But you can still like “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It is a powerful song.
Chuck Berry is another legend, but unlike Sam Cooke, his dirtbag status is confirmed. The man that performed “My Ding-A-Ling” was first accused of having underaged porn. Then by breaking the incredibly racist (but justified in this case) Mann Act with a 14-year-old girl. Then he spied on women in restrooms. Johnny B. Goode was a certified creep. Let’s acknowledge that.
But enough about musicians. Switching to a field I’m actually an expert in: cinema.
Woody Allen. At one point I did enjoy him. But I don’t anymore. Why?
Woody Allen is a damn good writer and a decent director. But have you actually watched his films? Really watched them?
Allen’s protagonists have sexual relationships with teenagers or significantly younger women here and here and here and maybe even here. That is too much for me. I’d rather watch a Polanski film than see Allen continue to flaunt these relationships onscreen. At least Mia Farrow was treated better in Rosemary’s Baby. Yes, I realize I said being raped by your husband and/or the devil is better treatment than dating an old man with a fetish for girlish women. But he also directed Chinatown…
Just forget what I said. I’m noticing this is a thing. Cancel all of it.
Some of you may feel different and that is okay. But personally, I’m done with Allen. He attempts to normalize his behavior by writing it into scripts. I’ll still admit Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan are great films, but they were made before we knew the real Woody Allen. And he’s still alive writing problematic scripts.
What about stuff kids watch?
You already know the answer to that. The UK is still coming to terms with Jimmy Savile.
But you are probably thinking of cartoons you have nostalgia for. And while you can definitely discuss if a show like Captain Planet did more harm than good, you are probably thinking of the cartoons you watched as a kid and that your parents also watched.
Ok. Cartoons are terrible. But they used to be really terrible. Disney banned Song in the South and most of its racist wartime propaganda, but have you seen Peter Pan? Lady and the Tramp? Chip n’ Dale Rescue Rangers? Aladdin? Disney hired Cheech Marin to harass a posh female dog onscreen in Oliver and Company, and it was both racist and sexist. And played for laughs.
Cartoons with more adult themes are even worse because the joke was definitely racist or sexist, or maybe even alluded to subjects we just don’t joke about anymore.
One subject that we don’t touch anymore are people with intellectual disabilities. For decades, cartoons made the same Of Mice and Men reference.
And that was the joke. It was funny because Lennie from Of Mice and Men, who had an intellectual disability, accidentally killed things he liked until his most trusted friend George killed him (spoiler alert, I guess. It’s been 80 years). It was never meant to be funny. Steinbeck novels are depressing.
While we can enjoy an old Bugs Bunny film, older South Park shows, or even Tropic Thunder, we have to realize we cannot go back to making fun of the intellectually disabled for no reason. Society has decided that it’s no longer funny.
What about more contemporary forms of media?
“Sex and the City.”
You mean the fantasy of four busy women always finding time to brunch every week?
“I mean its treatment of gay people, black people, and Muslims.”
Oh! Yeah, that.
I believe the creators now realize just how problematic Sex and the City was. Sex is a good example of realizing that society changes faster than we realize. I know plenty of black people and gay people who love the series, but I imagine it’s like watching Gone with the Wind. It’s a well-written show, but ultimately will be treated as a product of the past.
Is there some sort of graph or something that allows me to be ok with all of this?
The bar graph is our own society. And the Overton window that goes with our society.
Also, creators are more savvy and astute than people give us credit for. Take All in the Family. Fans of Archie Bunker like his frankness and conservative values. He’s turned into memes about political correctness. Bunker used racial and ethnic slurs often, but fans view him as “telling it like it is” instead of what he actually was: a joke at their own expense.
The point of Archie Bunker was to show how out of place his values were in the changing world. When audiences didn’t get it, the show pushed the envelope with black neighbors the Jeffersons and an attempted rape of Bunker’s wife Edith. But make no mistake: All in the Family was a liberal show ran by a liberal showrunner aimed at changing the minds of conservative America. Don’t believe me? Meathead is still tweeting liberal thoughts.
Creators realize how instrumental they can be in changing the social landscape, which is why some problematic media was considered progressive at the time. Movies featuring bad girls, like Psycho for example, were actively fighting the Hays Code. We have come a long way from allowing a woman to smoke onscreen to attempting to dismantle rape culture. Same with race or LGBT issues.
Going back to GWTW, there are several analyses done about the Mammy character. Despite her status as a slave, Mammy did not appear to be rattled by the white people around her. Whenever she was reprimanded by them, she’d shoot back. She may have also been the one person Rhett Butler respected other than Belle. This was the defense used by Hattie McDaniel and the filmmakers, that Mammy was no ordinary subservient slave. It’s the Uncle Tom defense. The original one.
And while the Prissy character is painful to watch, there is a small hint that she’s just doing what many slaves actually did: played dumb to get out of work.
Today, we see the strong, sassy black woman as a damaging stereotype. But we had to start from acknowledging that black women were even people. It’ll be a long trip.
I would say the key to enjoying problematic media is to ask if that piece of culture has any other redeeming qualities to it, or even what would have been a redeeming quality at the time. Then enjoy it for the archaic piece that it is.
I’m afraid that my friend who’s black-gay-trans-disabled would judge me for liking this.
Yeah, they probably will.
Do you know how many white people tell me Gone with the Wind is their favorite movie? Even if I agree that it’s one of the best movies of all time, I don’t care to know you favor a slave movie over all other movies in existence. Even if you explain yourself. As a person of color, that’s the world I live in.
Same goes for the thousands of humiliating depictions of LGBTQA or queer-representing characters, from effeminate male villains to psycho lesbians to transpeople who “trick” a non-trans person. I love Rope, Strangers on a Train, and Silence of the Lambs. But I know better than to drag a gay friend into conversations about queer villains and their obsessions with the almost-always straight protagonists.
I don’t think you really answered whether I should enjoy problematic stuff.
Yes. But on a case-by-case basis. Some media will be objectively better than others. I will defend Gone with the Wind as a product of its time, but I would not argue that it should be shown to a large audience without context. That’s part of being media literate. Cartoon Network did the right thing with old Tom and Jerry cartoons. The network did not censor the cartoons, but it issued a disclaimer that the cartoons reflect outdated racial stereotypes, including the decades’ long cartoon gag of a character’s face being blown into a minstrel character. That’s how it should be done.
Cry “snowflake” all you want, but this is Cartoon Network. Unless you have ever been a black child watching a cartoon when a surprise blackface gag pops up out of nowhere, you can’t say if the disclaimer is “overly sensitive.”