It's not about removing 'Gone with the Wind.' It's about what comes next.
On Wednesday, HBO Max temporarily removed Gone with the Wind from its library, citing the film’s distasteful depiction of black people and cringeworthy discussion of slavery as the reason. The move was likely prompted in part by the protests that have been occurring worldwide in the wake of yet another unjust killing of a black man by a white police officer, as well as by a widely-read Los Angeles Times op-ed by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley published earlier this week. In the piece, Ridley argued that the 1939 film’s version of pre-Civil War Southerners as people who simply wanted to preserve their way of life—which was built on the backs of enslaved black people—is no longer appropriate for today.
Now, Ridley wasn’t asking for censorship or erasure of Gone with the Wind; he just wanted HBO Max to be cognizant of its black subscribers, whose mental health could be further damaged upon seeing the movie’s harmful stereotypes. And it would seem HBO Max agreed, as the streaming service announced that it would shelve the film until it could determine a better way to address its offensive depictions. There will be no alterations made to the movie’s content; instead, when it eventually returns to HBO Max, it’ll be alongside “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions.”
Whether those efforts will be as limp as the Disney+ disclaimer before films like The Jungle Book and Peter Pan, which simply states that there are outdated cultural opinions present, remains to be seen, of course. But HBO Max’s decision raises a big question—is it even necessary to continue engaging with stories like Gone with the Wind at all?
I’m not suggesting that Hollywood, and society at large, should lock away its shameful history of racial prejudice and injustice. Meaningful positive change can’t happen if we don’t take a hard look at the decisions of the past and understand how they inform the cultural climate as it exists today. We need to have frank discussions about race and the lasting effects of slavery, even if it feels uncomfortable. As such, I believe there is value in keeping content like Gone with the Wind alive, as they can teach us how to do better going forward.
That said, interacting with these narratives is not easy. Growing up, I dreaded when it was time to cover slavery in history class. It always felt like the other few black students and myself were expected to be the authorities on the subject of racism, but I didn’t want to be reminded, alongside my peers, that my skin color is all the excuse someone needs to reject, harass, or harm me. Moreover, it wasn’t, and still isn’t, my job to explain to white people why owning others and discriminating against them is wrong. Still, those kinds of discussions are vital. To build a better future, we have to talk about the past, even if it’s painful to rehash. And that includes continually reevaluating seminal creative works that no longer reflect society.
Our priority now, and what HBO Max is hopefully attempting to do, is to ensure we do more than talk about these narratives’ issues, however. Gone with the Wind has long been called into question for its racist overtones, but until this week, all people did was sigh and note that it’s a product of its time. That’s a cowardly way to engage with culture, and it doesn’t lead to any actual progress. It’s like letting your family members say offensive things because you don’t want to disturb the peace—and, besides, it’s how they were raised. That attitude may help you avoid fights, but refusing to take action only protects prejudiced parties and allows those views to continue.
Ridley wrote in his op-ed that one way HBO Max could reintroduce Gone with the Wind is to also add movies that provide other, more nuanced perspectives on the Civil War and the events thereafter. This would be a good step; by hearing from multiple voices, we can more thoroughly explore racism as it existed then and learn how it informs the racism of today. But I don’t think it’s enough. Instead, let’s focus on helping create and support new stories made by people from underrepresented communities. It’s not enough for white creators to have a handful of women and people of color in the room; that should be the bare minimum. The marginalized must be given the opportunity to lead, and to do so often.
We need to see dozens of projects like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, movies with people of color present in all areas of the filmmaking process, from casting to design to sound. Thankfully, there’s Jordan Peele’s upcoming TV series Lovecraft Country and Disney/Pixar’s Soul, both of which prominently feature people of color both on-screen and behind-the-scenes, but that should be just the start. We deserve more.
So yes, there’s reason to watch problematic stories like Gone with the Wind and learn from their approach, but there’s also reason to recognize when those stories stop feeling so timeless and, in league with that recognition, have candid conversations about why that is. And while we’re doing this, we can work on helping new, far more representative classics get made and seen. As Scarlett O’Hara said herself, “Tomorrow is another day.” Let’s treat it like one and bring something new to the table. It’s time.