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Racist, Sexist … Classic? How Hollywood Is Dealing With Its Problematic Content

As streamers build out their lucrative libraries, they are experimenting with label warnings, context panels and even purges: "These are valuable properties that you cannot just disregard. You want to keep them, but you have to make sure they don’t damage the brand." 

Every month, Disney convenes an eclectic group of advisers via videoconference to tell the media conglomerate what it and the many entertainment companies it has acquired over its nearly 100-year history have gotten wrong. It’s a long list. Song of the South. Jar Jar Binks. That episode of The Muppet Show where Johnny Cash sings a duet with Miss Piggy in front of a Confederate flag.

“We’ve had some very raw conversations on those Zooms,” says Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association, who sits on Disney’s advisory council, part of its Stories Matter Initiative, alongside representatives from groups like the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media as well as representatives from various departments at Disney, including programming, public policy and diversity and inclusion. Disney asks Robertson and his colleagues to watch content that may contain stereotypes or insensitive imagery and offer their perspectives. Some shows and films, like certain episodes of The Muppet Show that Disney added to its streaming platform Feb. 19, have ended up with disclaimers cautioning viewers about “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” a kind of pop culture equivalent of a surgeon general’s warning. “They want to make up for any offensive messaging they may have been a part of,” Robertson says. “It feels sincere, and it’s also good business.”

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For traditional studios launching new streaming services and trying to attract 2021 audiences, their libraries are precious resources, assets to draw viewers saturated with entertainment options via the powerful forces of nostalgia and brand recognition. But these decades-old archives also are minefields of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bias that were publicly acceptable in the eras in which the content originally was produced. Studios are taking a range of approaches to grappling with that part of their legacies, from adding content warnings to removing shows or films entirely to creating new content that contextualizes older programming, as WarnerMedia’s classic TV network, TCM, is doing with a new series called Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror, which begins March 4.

“Nobody’s canceling these movies,” says TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. “Our job is not to get up and say, ‘Here’s a movie that you should feel guilty about for liking.’ But to pretend that the racism in it is not painful and acute? No. I do not want to shy away from that. This was inevitable. And welcomed. And overdue.”

Clockwise Tropic Thunder, Swing Time, Song of The South, Dumbo

Older shows and movies are still big business. On Disney+ in 2020, nearly 80 percent of the TV demand was for the streaming service’s licensed/library shows — only about 20 percent was for original shows like The Mandalorian, according to Parrot Analytics. On HBO Max, more than 90 percent of TV demand was for licensed/library shows and less than 10 percent for originals. (Parrot does not tabulate the numbers for films.) “You attract subscribers with original shows, but you retain them with library content,” says Alejandro Rojas, Parrot’s director of applied analytics. “These are valuable properties that you cannot just disregard. You want to keep them, but you have to make sure they don’t damage the brand.” In 2019, Miramax’s 700-film library was valued at $750 million; the libraries at Disney and WarnerMedia are multibillion-dollar assets, says Chris Kirk, consultant at 8020 Consulting.

The need for studios to reckon with their racist histories took on a new urgency last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests were unfolding across the U.S. in response to the police killing of George Floyd, and brands of all varieties weighed in with charitable donations, public statements and corporate town halls about diversity and inclusion. At AT&T’s WarnerMedia, that moment of national tumult meant reexamining one of the company’s crown jewels, Gone With the Wind, the 1939 Civil War epic that remains, adjusted for inflation, the highest-grossing film of all time. Screenwriter John Ridley wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling for WarnerMedia to temporarily remove the film from its then-less-than-2-week-old streaming service, HBO Max, because Gone With the Wind sentimentalizes slavery and perpetuates stereotypes. “At a moment when we are all considering what more we can do to fight bigotry and intolerance, I would ask that all content providers look at their libraries and make a good-faith effort to separate programming that might be lacking in its representation from that which is blatant in its demonization,” Ridley wrote. HBO Max removed the film within hours of Ridley’s column being published, eventually returning Gone With the Wind to the service later that month with a four-minute introduction by TCM host Jacqueline Stewart framing the movie as one that “denies the horrors of slavery as well as its legacy of racial inequality.”

GONE WITH THE WIND, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel

“I was heartened that HBO Max took a pause to consider what it means, at this historical moment, to present a legendary and beloved film that glorifies the Confederacy and romanticizes slavery,” Stewart says. “I put together my introduction in a matter of days, but they were very long days.” In it, Stewart noted that objections to the film are not just a contemporary phenomenon — in 1936, NAACP secretary Walter White wrote to producer David O. Selznick suggesting he hire an African American to fact-check Margaret Mitchell’s novel glamorizing the antebellum South before adapting it for the screen. She also pointed out that Hattie McDaniel was not included in the film’s premiere in Atlanta and was marginalized at the Oscars ceremony, where she became the first African American to win an Academy Award. “Gone With the Wind raises questions about racial politics on- and off-screen, in Hollywood’s past and in the present media landscape,” Stewart says. “I wanted to connect all of those dots.” WarnerMedia has assembled a group composed of historians and advisers from outside the company as well as representatives from various Warner divisions to examine its archives. “Our approach is to confront and contextualize our history,” says Christy Haubegger, WarnerMedia’s chief enterprise inclusion officer and head of marketing and communications.

Clockwise Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Searchers, The Children's Hour, Aladdin

TCM, where Stewart became the first Black host in September 2019, will apply a similar concept with its new series devoted to legendary films that often are problematic to today’s audiences for their approach to race, gender and LGBTQ issues. Reframed will feature the network’s five hosts in roundtable discussions of such films as Gone With the Wind, The Searchers, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Woman of the Year and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner from a 21st century perspective.

In the discussion about Gone With the Wind, TCM host Eddie Muller notes Malcolm X’s mention of the film in his 1965 autobiography. “I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug,” the activist wrote. Some intros examine the expectation of who an audience for a film might be — in the case of classic movies, producers were thinking almost exclusively of white audiences. “It’s important to come face-to-face with that uncomfortable idea that what many of us have considered safe is the opposite of that for other people,” says TCM host Alicia Malone. “One person’s safety can be another person’s trauma.”

In many ways, TCM hosts have been quietly adding this type of historical nuance to their intros for years, even when it sometimes irks audiences looking for escapism. An intro Mankiewicz shot for the 1957 film A Face in the Crowd upset conservatives back in 2010 for comparisons the host drew between the cult of celebrity culture in the film and the state of contemporary political commentary. “The Goatee’d One can interpret the meaning of Elia Kazan’s masterpiece in today’s world all he wants, but he needs to keep that interpretation to himself and show his viewers the respect of allowing us to interpret it for our own selves,” wrote conservative blogger John Nolte at the time. Says Mankiewicz about the new intros: “I don’t think we ought to be afraid of irritating some people. Putting a movie into context does not mean saying, ‘Hey, look, man. People were racist in 1939, so let it go.’ Ultimately what we end up doing is making sure that these movies stay as part of the conversation.”

Drawing attention to problems in their own archives does carry risks for studios. “Kermit Canceled?” asked a headline on the conservative website The Daily Wire when Disney rolled out disclaimers on 18 episodes of The Muppet Show. When the hosts of Fox News’ Fox & Friends asked Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton about the disclaimers on Feb. 24, the lawmaker brought up the studio’s relationship with China and its thanking of government agencies in a province that is home to detention camps that house Uighur Muslims in the credits for its 2020 China-set adventure film Mulan. Cotton pointed out that the company’s business interests matter most above anything. “They don’t take these things down,” the senator said of Muppet Show episodes. “They still want that $12.99 a month.” (Disney+ is actually $6.99 a month.)

These types of cancel-culture critiques have not deterred studios. Disney put short content warnings on the original animated versions of Dumbo (1941), The Jungle Book (1967) and Aladdin (1992) when the company launched its streaming service in November 2019 — a disclaimer telling audiences the films “may contain outdated cultural depictions.” In the fall, the studio further strengthened the warnings to read, “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now.”

Disney’s most controversial film may be Song of the South, the 1946 Reconstruction-era live-action/animated musical that the studio has not aired on TV since 2001 nor screened publicly in a theater since 1986. Disney also has kept Song of the South off its streaming service and is removing characters from the movie from the Splash Mountain attraction at its theme parks, replacing them with characters from The Princess and the Frog, the 2009 animated musical that was the first to feature a Black Disney princess. The studio theme park designers already had been discussing updating the ride but announced their plans amid the racial justice protests last summer. “It is important that our guests be able to see themselves in the experiences we create,” Carmen Smith, vp creative development and inclusion strategies at Walt Disney Imagineering, said in a blog post in June.

Multiple Hollywood companies have been using an artificial intelligence program designed by researchers from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering to analyze films and shows for issues like gender representation and violence — now one studio also is weighing using AI to scan scripts in its archive for content like racial slurs.

Not everyone thinks that it’s wise to entirely remove an offensive film or TV show from circulation. Some scholars feel it can fetishize the work, or that it removes an opportunity for study. “The teacher in me is not interested in vanishing anything,” says Kristen Warner, assistant professor in the department of telecommunication and film at the University of Alabama, who studies racial representation in the media. “These things are useful, and I don’t think wiping them from the face of the earth is going to resolve anything except have things re-created without an origin source. The assumption that if you get rid of Gone With the Wind, there won’t be any more Gone With the Winds is a specious claim.”

Blackface has proved an especially persistent reminder of Hollywood’s racist past — even its quite recent past — and at least now, most studios are scrubbing it from their catalogs. Over the summer, producers began pulling blackface episodes of NBC shows like 30 Rock, The Office and The Golden Girls from circulation. Lionsgate took a different tack with a 2009 episode of AMC’s Mad Men in which John Slattery’s Roger Sterling sings “My Old Kentucky Home” in blackface during a Kentucky Derby party, leaving the episode up but emphasizing the series’ historical context for the scene. “This episode contains disturbing images related to race in America,” reads a title card for the episode, which now streams on Amazon’s IMDb TV and AMC+. “One of the characters is shown in blackface as part of an episode that shows how commonplace racism was in America in 1963. The series producers are committed to exposing the injustices and inequities within our society that continue to this day. … We are therefore presenting the original episode in its entirety.”

ViacomCBS has yet to signal how the company will deal with some of its potentially offensive titles when it launches Paramount+ on March 4. Although ViacomCBS chairman Shari Redstone opened the studio’s presentation Feb. 24 by declaring, “This is not your father’s Viacom. This is not my father’s, either,” Paramount+ will rely on a library of more than 30,000 episodes of television and 2,500 movies. That’s a list that potentially includes everything from Fu Manchu movies of the 1930s to 2008’s Tropic Thunder, which features Robert Downey Jr. in blackface and liberal use of a schoolyard put-down for people with developmental disabilities.

When Martin Scorsese published an essay about Federico Fellini in Harper’s Magazine in February critiquing the way streaming service algorithms rob classic cinema of its romance and context, the piece reignited a long-standing Film Twitter debate around the merits of older movies. “Stop jumping on people who don’t like old movies,” tweeted Punisher: War Zone director Lexi Alexander. “It’s such a pretentious ‘I went to an expensive film school’ thing to do. Old movies rarely hold up, plus they’re racist and sexist AF.”

As time passes, audiences and studios may settle on a subtler approach to understanding older films and shows, one that leaves room for both pleasure and hard analysis.

The first time Stewart saw Gone With the Wind, she was a child at her grandmother’s house in the 1970s, and the film was airing on television, a major primetime event. “The adults in my family knew all of the famous scenes by heart and rolled their eyes when Butterfly McQueen or Hattie McDaniel would deliver lines that were particularly demeaning,” says Stewart. “It was an early lesson for me about how Black audiences have always juggled the pleasures and problems of mainstream media. I was learning that you can enjoy a film even as you are critiquing it.”

This story first appeared in the March 3 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.