It’s not news that, for an institutional culture notorious for wanting to have its cake and eat it too, Hollywood has zero aptitude for holding two competing thoughts at the same time.
The most recent example came by way of the exhibition world, when a Memphis theater announced that it would cancel next year’s annual screening of “Gone With the Wind” because of the film’s sanitized portrayal of the Civil War-era South. After receiving complaints from viewers at this year’s show — which took place right before Charlottesville erupted into violence during a racist march — an official with the Orpheum Theatre announced that the venue “cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”
Coincidentally enough, the Orpheum’s announcement came just 10 days after Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh ordered the removal of four monuments commemorating heroes of the Confederacy, a swift action that had followed years of deliberation on the part of politicians, historians and curators. As someone who regularly fumed while walking my dogs past a statue of Roger B. Taney — the chief justice who delivered the 1857 Dred Scott decision ruling that African Americans were not legal citizens of the United States — I couldn’t help but smile at the sudden absence: The satisfaction was deep, and it was real.
By now, though, the empty plinths have opened up space for misgivings. The perfunctory removal of the monuments might have been wise from a political and public-safety standpoint, but it was at odds with the transparency and moral reckoning that are necessary for accountability and healing. And it did not comport with the recommendations of a review commission, convened by then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, whose 2016 report suggested that the Confederate monuments be re-sited or richly re-contextualized but never simply removed and forgotten. (Today the monuments sit under a tarp, awaiting Pugh’s decision on their respective fates.)
“It is not the responsibility of each generation to judge past generations,” the commission concluded. “It is, however, every generation’s responsibility to clear the way for truth to be heard.” It added, quoting the philosopher Theodor Adorno, “The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.”
Does “Gone With the Wind” allow suffering to speak? No, at least not explicitly: Its portrayal of enslaved plantation workers as either happy and loyal aides-de-camp, happy and nurturing mother figures or happy and infantilized fools is deeply offensive and inaccurate, as is its perpetuation of the Lost Cause myth, which it helped ingrain into American culture after its release in 1939.
But, unlike so many of the statues that went up during that same era and that have come tumbling down in recent weeks — whose cheap construction and commissioning history revealed them to be less public art than propagandistic kitsch — “Gone With the Wind” isn’t only that. Or, more accurately, it’s both things at once: a soapy, hysterically pitched melodrama drenched in sentimentalism and Old South cant, and a genuine work of art whose production design, staging and camera work are worth admiration and study, even while keeping the film’s most toxic properties in mind. The same can be said for “The Birth of a Nation,” D.W. Griffith’s 1915 drama that presented similarly enraging imagery of Reconstruction-era America, with similarly grievous effectiveness, by way of visual language that was revolutionary for its time. And maybe even for “Song of the South,” the animated musical, chock full of racist stereotypes, that was picketed upon its release in 1946 and that Disney has largely kept out of view since.
As the Baltimore commission found, and what intellectually honest adults should know without being told: Context is everything. Rather than cancel further screenings outright, what if the Orpheum had simply decided to present “Gone With the Wind” more thoughtfully, as part of a series along with films that more accurately and artfully depict the realities of the 19th-century South? (The Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and Charles Burnett’s “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property” leap immediately to mind.) What if every repertory presentation of the film could be accompanied by conversations with historians, critics, activists? What if we re-sited them away from commercial multiplexes and into libraries, museums, cinematheques? What if we dared to contend honestly with our most shameful and enduring cultural legacies rather than wishing them away or erasing them outright?
And what if media companies accepted their stewardship of these films as enthusiastically as their other intellectual properties? Studios spend millions every year paying people to mine their archives for potentially profitable IP to recycle; as the wardens of our social history, they should take their gatekeeping role just as seriously, enlisting their own monument commissions of archivists, filmmakers, historians and curators to help exhibitors show their repertory products within an illuminating context. Indeed, one could imagine this being useful, not just for retrograde Disney cartoons but for Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” whose sexual politics grow more objectionable by the year. At a time when “all our faves are problematic,” movies offer the perfect opportunity to make the interrogation of art part of the aesthetic experience, rather than a box-checking afterthought.
The choice to cancel “Gone With the Wind” was a reflexive one — and understandable, considering the moment. Ideally, though, questions of which movies should be available to the public shouldn’t be based on who might take offense but on what will clear the way for truth and allow suffering to be heard. American cinema has made a business of courting controversy and shock value, but it tends to deal with its most outrageous contradictions by shutting them down and locking them away. It would be refreshing for a medium devoted to having it both ways to embrace that ethic when it comes to fully owning its best and its worst, especially when both exist in the same movie.