Last week, the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis decided not to make Gone with the Wind part of their 2018 summer film series, after a recent showing generated a substantial amount of online criticism. The 1939 Best Picture winner had been shown as part of the series for decades.
Thankfully, no one overreacted.
Just kidding! Of course people overreacted. Opponents of the Orpheum’s decision responded with predictable criticisms of their own. Accusations of political correctness run amok (the only type of political correctness worth a damn, if you ask me) and censorship rained down from all corners of the internet. Inevitable predictions of a chain reaction ending in the refusal to show any film that any person in any place has ever found “insensitive” followed shortly thereafter.
Where to start? I know, we’ll go with the most idiotic of these complaints first and work our way down the list from there.
Complaint #1: Removing Gone with the Wind from the summer classics series because it’s “insensitive” is censorship, and censorship of art – even racist art – is not OK.
This isn’t censorship (there, that was easy).
No theater is obligated to show a given movie. Just as it isn’t censorship when you change the radio station when Nickelback comes on or put down a book that you find boring, it’s not censorship for a business to decide that – for any reason or no reason at all – they don’t want to show a particular flick.
Now, if the government were barring the film from being shown at all or jailing people who wanted to watch it? Obviously, that would be a different story. But, last I checked, you’re free to rent or purchase Gone with the Wind and view it any time you please. Don’t confuse an individual theater’s choice (even one made in the face of public pressure) with any kind of violation of free speech.
Any theater is free to show or not show whichever movies they want. If the Orpheum wanted to become a Pixar-only family theater, they could. That wouldn’t mean they were eradicating R-rated dramas, just that they wanted to provide their customers with a specific kind of product. And if they wanted to screen Gone with the Wind and have a panel discussion afterward discussing the film’s problematic content and try to contextualize it for an interested audience? They could do that too, whether or not their patrons complained. As it stands, they’ve not banned or censored anything.
Complaint #2: This whole story is another example of taking political correctness too far. Gone with the Wind is a certified classic, and we can’t simply erase from history every problematic piece of art.
Political correctness is, for many people, the catch-all boogeyman to blame for so many of our culture’s ills. It’s defined by the people who see it that way as a set of rules designed by uptight people for the express purpose of having something to be offended by at all times. Some even insist that political correctness is actually, itself, a tool for discrimination.
Hold on a second while I locate my gigantic WRONG button.
Ah, there it is.
(Man, I love that thing.)
The thing is, when people complain about political correctness, they’re mostly just revealing how little consideration they’re willing to give other people’s experiences. “If I’m not affected by racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-semitism, etc., then surely other people are exaggerating the effects of those things in their own lives,” the thinking goes.
So, when people complain that Gone with the Wind is “insensitive” and want the theater to stop screening it, they’re labeled “snowflakes” and told that there are no safe spaces in the real world. That the people throwing out these insults are privileged enough to be upset by a cancelled showing of a racist movie is an irony too obvious to mention, apparently.
What’s that? Oh, yeah, I called Gone with the Wind racist in that last sentence. Just kind of slipped it in there like an accepted assumption. In my defense, I only did that because it’s definitely, unquestionably racist.
It’s not just “a product of its time;” it’s racist. It presents nearly every black character as a laughable collection of stereotypes and either ignores the reality of slavery or treats it like a benign detail, secondary to the rest of the story. Mammy, the one black character of any substance, literally became the archetype for generations of loyal, subservient black characters all too happy to remain second class citizens. The revisionist message is painfully obvious: the evils of slavery have been exaggerated, and the real victims are those passionate southerners whose way of life was trampled by northern agitators.
That’s the same narrative peddled by all those Confederate monuments you hear about in the news. Like Gone with the Wind, they arrived in the 30s and tried to paper over the cracks of the Civil War, celebrating the “Lost Cause” and recasting slavery as a tertiary concern to the real issue of “state’s rights” and “economic oppression.”
So removing Gone with the Wind from the Orpheum’s summer series isn’t erasing history. Gone with the Wind is itself the thing trying to erase history by presenting the Confederacy as something other than it really was. That the people of Memphis (which is about 65% black, by the way) don’t want that lie mindlessly peddled just because some old movie won a bunch of awards (from a racist institution that wouldn’t let Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, in the building to receive her award), is totally understandable.
Those complaints aren’t the lonely voices of a few “snowflakes,” they’re the reasonable response to seeing the Klan march openly on American streets and wanting to confront the poisonous narratives that make people pull those sheets over their faces in the first place.
Complaint #3: Ok, even if the movie is just as insensitive as its critics claim, isn’t this the beginning of a slippery slope that ends any controversial or challenging work of art being shamed into hiding?
No. Again, the specifics of this situation matter. The content of Gone with the Wind isn’t just unpleasant or generically offensive, it’s overtly racist. Which means that, even if the film has great historical importance, it’s at the very least an inappropriate choice for a summer film series. The Orpheum, after all, is not a museum charged with the preservation of film history; it’s a business that shows movies to entertain its patrons. Other films on its summer classics list include The Sandlot and Dirty Harry, so let’s not go pretending that the fate of the culture hangs in the balance here.
My point is that there is still a way to appreciate the achievement of Gone with the Wind’s production while simultaneously reckoning with its willful whitewashing of history, and that place is not family movie night at the local cineplex.
I’m sure this isn’t the last time this argument will be had, but I hope more theaters are willing to conduct the kind of close examination required to make sensible decisions about what lands on their screens. And if it takes the pressure of their patrons to make it happen, then so be it.