TCM examines ‘problematic’ film classics in new series

From The New York Post:

Loving classic films can be a fraught pastime. Just consider the cultural firestorm over “Gone With the Wind” this past summer. No one knows this better than the film lovers at Turner Classic Movies who daily are confronted with the complicated reality that many of old Hollywood’s most celebrated films are also often a kitchen sink of stereotypes. This summer, amid the Black Lives Matter protests, the channel’s programmers and hosts decided to do something about it.

The result is a new series, “Reframed Classics,” which promises wide-ranging discussions about 18 culturally significant films from the 1920s through the 1960s that also have problematic aspects, from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi to Fred Astaire’s blackface routine in “Swing Time.” It kicks off Thursday at 8 p.m. ET with none other than “Gone With the Wind.”

. . . .

“We know millions of people love these films,” said TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, who is participating in many of the conversations. “We’re not saying ‘This is how you should feel about “Pyscho”’ or ‘This is how you should feel about “Gone with the Wind.”’ We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to ‘I love this movie.’ ‘I hate this movie.’ There’s so much space in between.”

. . . .

Stewart, a University of Chicago professor who in 2019 became the channel’s first African American host, has spent her career studying classic films, particularly those in the silent era, and black audiences. She knows firsthand the tension of loving films that also contain racial stereotypes.

“I grew up in a family of people who loved classic films. Now, how can you love these films if you know that there’s going to be a maid or mammy that shows up?” Stewart said. “Well, I grew up around people who could still love the movie. You appreciate some parts of it. You critique other parts of it. That’s something that one can do and it actually can enrich your experience of the film.”

. . . .

While TCM audiences will know her as the host of “Silent Sunday Nights,” this past summer she was given a bigger spotlight when she was selected to introduce “Gone With the Wind” on HBO Max to provide proper context after its controversial removal from the streaming service. She remembers drafting her remarks for that while also concocting this series.

“I continue to feel a sense of urgency around these topics,” she said. “We’re showing films that really shaped the ways that people continue to think about race and gender and sexuality and ability. It was really important for the group to come together to think about how we can work with each other and work with our fans to deepen the conversations about these films.”

TCM hosts Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone and Eddie Muller will also be part of many conversations. The films that they’ve selected aren’t under-the-radar novelties, either. As Stewart said, “They’re the classics of the classics.”

The series, which runs every Thursday through March 25, will also show “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Gunga Din,” “The Searchers,” “My Fair Lady,” “Stagecoach,” “Woman of the Year” and “The Children’s Hour.”

Link to the rest at The New York Post and thanks to Felix for the tip.

Without getting into a long diatribe, PG feels quite uneasy about erasing history or portions of history about which we feel uncomfortable or ashamed.

The movies described in the OP depict an attitude that was considered quite ordinary when they were made. All the “right people” thought these movies were fine. They were mass entertainment designed to appeal to the mass market. Some were given the motion picture industry’s highest awards. Again, the “right people”, society’s tastemakers, believed they were excellent as art and entertainment.

Today, many will regard them as distasteful and offensive. As indicated in the OP, more than a few people, at least in the United States, want to effectively ban the showing of such motion pictures.

PG isn’t completely certain why there must be a ban on motion pictures, books, etc., etc. that were clearly mainstream media created to appeal to the tastes of large numbers of people in an earlier era.

To some extent, PG senses a feeling that such material must be kept from the masses lest their attitudes or actions be influenced by exposure to such media. Those who control the distribution of entertainment and information suspect that their audiences or some large portion of their audiences will believe that the behavior and stereotypes included in the mass entertainment of an earlier era will recreate such behavior and reignite such stereotypes in the unwashed masses who may consume them today.

PG believes that history is important to understand and learn from. To the extent history discloses errors, even serious errors, and imperfections in human behavior and attitudes, it is important to understand those errors so they are less likely to be repeated. Pretending they didn’t exist leaves current and future generations more susceptible to repeating such errors.

George Santayana is credited with the aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Winston Churchill wrote, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Yes, the evils of racism can be taught in the abstract, but PG suggests an understanding of how human beings as rational and intelligent as ourselves could accept racism as normal and perfectly consistent with admirable human values not only is a better warning about the true dangers of racism, but also an invitation to be quite humble about the certitudes of our day which may, after further consideration and study, be as offensive of those socially-accepted certitudes of an earlier age.

4 thoughts on “TCM examines ‘problematic’ film classics in new series”

  1. Just to note that the Fred Astaire routine in “Swing Time” is a love letter to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. If this expression of admiration for a black dancer is to considered “problematic” simply because it uses an outdated entertainment trope totally in context for the time and place in the film, then it being called “problematic” may only provide a reason to distrust the critic rather than the film.

    For that matter, can anyone doubt that Professor Higgins would have treated a male student just as badly as Eliza? It was the class divide not misogyny (though his total lack of understanding of women didn’t help).

    I’m not saying that there are not films with undesirable content, but something like “The Birth of a Nation” (aka “The Clansman”) not only deserves a stronger word than “problematic” but there is no need for a bout of presentism to see why it is, and always was, repulsive.

  2. To some extent, PG senses a feeling that such material must be kept from the masses lest their attitudes or actions be influenced by exposure to such media.

    I suspect the greater fear is millions will just enjoy the movie, won’t care, and will ignore the conversation.
    I’m surprised these folks haven’t yet discovered Gladiator.

  3. Well, this is one of those “the principle expressed seems sound, let’s see how they implement it” things.

    The principle that there should be at least acknowledgement that some portion of the audience — and/or some portion of those portrayed in the film — might find it problematic, with at least some explanation for those with less than omniscience an explanation of why, seems appropriate. So does a short period of nonavailability to make sure that those explanations are not themselves problematic, are accurate, and actually accomplish their goals without imposing a holier-than-thou perspective. (Part of the problem is just that some iconic works, like GWTW, just really aren’t all that good and have problematic creators, owners, or parties entangled in the rights like, in this instance, Suntrust Bank. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.)

    Whether TCM has fully managed to perform this without being viewed as a “censor” is yet to be determined. But an announced short-term withdrawal in furtherance of the above is not censorship. You want censorship? Try Disney’s entire withholding of Song of the South (and even that is the rightsholder’s choice in the face of legitimate outside concerns, not “censorship” as in “it wasn’t the consequences I didn’t like, it was the absolute and enforced prohibition of speech,” notwithstanding the dubious chain of title). Don’t mislabel things as “censorship” when they’re not: That mislabeling, more than anything else, is the heart of “cancel culture” (and its ancestors going back to Socrates and probably earlier, I just need more caffeine to come up with other examples).

    Of course, the real solution would be to stop making things that perpetuate the problem like Prince of Persia. But that’s not going to happen. It’s most especially not going to happen so long as any identity group 1 thinks that acknowledgement of past errors regarding a different identity group 2 is an attack on identity group 1’s identity.

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