Gone with the anti-racist winds

Think About It: Will more old films, TV series be shelved, censured or otherwise meddled with?

Hattie McDaniel (R) and Vivien Leigh (L) in the iconic roles of Mammy and Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 film 'Gone with the Wind.' Her role earned McDaniel the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar.   (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hattie McDaniel (R) and Vivien Leigh (L) in the iconic roles of Mammy and Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 film 'Gone with the Wind.' Her role earned McDaniel the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, she was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of several curious side effects of the wave of anti-racist demonstrations that broke out in the US against the background of the apparent strangulation of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 by a white policeman has been the removal (for the time being) of old films and chapters from old TV series from the programming of streaming platforms.
HBO Max (an American subscription video on demand streaming service of WarnerMedia Entertainment) last week removed Gone with the Wind from its roster because of the way this film (based on a 1936 novel by the same name, which went out to the screens in 1939) depicts African-American slaves during the American Civil War (1861-65) and its aftermath.
No doubt, if the film had been produced today, the script and at least some of the character types would have been very different and politically correct, in accordance with current standards. Had it been produced in the 1860s (of course, movies hadn’t yet been invented then), it would probably have made the 1939 version look like utopia.

It should be noted that even when it was first released, there was some criticism of the way the black slaves were depicted, but at the same time one of the supporting actresses in the film – Hattie McDaniel – was the first African-American to receive an Academy Award (the second one was Whoopi Goldberg, 51 years later).
Let us also remember that the film was produced 75 years after the end of the Civil War, and 25 years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the historic Civil Right Act.
Of course, if old films and chapters from TV series are to be shelved, censured or otherwise meddled with for the reason that Gone with the Wind was removed by HBO Max from its roster, the original versions of thousands of films (primarily American ones), including some all-time classics (Gone with the Wind is still the highest-grossing film in history), might be deleted from film archives available to the general public.
Apparently, this is not about to happen, and what will probably occur is that many old films and chapters will be accompanied by disclaimers and context information. I suspect that the procedure could get rather messy. It is sad to think that due to education failures in many countries (including democracies), people cannot be trusted to contextualize what they hear and view on their own, and must be spoon-fed, and the solution offered is more befitting authoritarian regimes than democratic ones.
Of course, anti-African-American racism is not the only issue affected. In the UK, one episode of the famous British TV comedy Fawlty Towers, produced in the mid-1970s, has also been temporarily removed, by no other than the BBC, from its streaming platform, because in it Basil Fawlty (played by John Cleese) says to a group of German tourists visiting the hotel which he runs: “Don’t mention the War.” He didn’t accuse them of the Blitz, he didn’t accuse them of murdering six million Jews and many other groups and individuals, but of mentioning the Second World War. This was viewed by the BBC as a “racial slur.”
On these grounds thousands of films about the post-Second World War years will have to be removed – permanently or temporarily – or “contextualized.” And who exactly is qualified to do the contextualization (unfortunately, an unusable word in a Scrabble game because of its length)? One wonders whether the BBC would act in the same manner if Fawlty had said to a group of Israeli tourists “Don’t mention the Palestinians” or “Don’t mention annexation.”
IF, HEAVEN forbid, this new epidemic will spread to Israel, I can already see Dr. Avishay Ben Haim demanding, in the name of the Mizrahi Second Israel (descendants of local Jewish communities in the Middle East and North Africa), that most of the inalienable assets of the Israeli cinema, up to the 1980s or even beyond, be permanently shelved or contextualized (I hate to think what the texts will say, and who will write them).
There is no doubt that in the past many Israeli films – e.g., Sallah Shabati and “Burekas” films – ridiculed the Mizrahim, but watching the series Shnot Hashmonim (the 1980s) on Channel 13, which is produced by Mizrahim with mostly Mizrahi actors, isn’t less demeaning in my eyes.
And will all the participants in the current battle against violence against, and murder of, women demand that the 1971 film Queen of the Road, directed by Menahem Golan and starring Gila Almagor (who plays a Mizrahi prostitute who wishes to have a child and leave the profession), be removed, especially since Almagor was allegedly sexually harassed on the set, in the course of the filming of the scene in which the pregnant prostitute is raped by a bunch of Ashkenazim? Try to contextualize that situation.
Of course, Israel’s Arab population has every reason to complain about how Arabs are depicted in many Israeli films, or the fact that the Nakba narrative is totally denied and ignored, though I doubt whether anyone would consider removing such films or even try to contextualize them.
The opposite occurred in the case of Israeli-Arab film director and actor Mohammed Bakri’s Jenin, Jenin, produced as a documentary in 2002, which depicted Israeli soldiers in a skirmish that took place in the Jenin refugee camp during Operation Defensive Shield in April 2002, in which there were numerous Palestinian and Israeli fatalities. According to Palestinians who were interviewed by Bakri, soldiers committed war crimes. The film was banned in Israel for commercial screening, and it is not clear where the original version in Arabic can be viewed (there is an English version, which was edited by Bakri and does not include some of the more problematic scenes).
Bakri has been sued twice by Israeli military personnel for defamation and torts. In the first case, the claim was dismissed because the plaintiffs were not seen personally in the film, though the judge remarked that the film did in fact slander Israeli soldiers in general, and that Bakri had not backed up his charges with reports from human rights groups, which had monitored what had happened in the camp. In the second case, the plaintiff, who submitted his claim in 2016, is an officer whose face can be seen in the film for several seconds as an old Palestinian is heard complaining that his money had been stolen by Israeli soldiers. The officer claimed that the insinuation was that he had something to do with the alleged theft. This case is still in court.
But to return to the case of Gone with the Wind. I think that what disturbs me most is the ease with which part of a nation’s authentic cultural heritage – with all its grandeurs and faults – can be tampered with. And as Joy Behar, an American comedian, television host, actress, and writer asked and answered: “Will canceling Gone with the Wind actually solve racism? I don’t think so.”