Earlier this week, John Ridley, the screenwriter who wrote “12 Years a Slave” – an incredibly gritty and powerful movie – published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling on HBO to remove the film “Gone with the Wind” from its online streaming service because it “glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”
I admire John Ridley and wholeheartedly agree with him that GWTW suffers from all the troubling shortcomings he perceives.
I also supported, two summers ago, the position of black citizens in the state of Virginia who demanded to take down public statues of confederacy generals and politicians who represented to them the most reprehensible era in American history. In my mind I compared the taking down of those statues with the removal of Nazi statues in Germany or statues of Stalin in Russia.
But I balked at GWTW. Because despite its faults, this is a remarkably beautiful and forceful movie, and unlike those statues in Virginia it does not force itself on our public space, and—most importantly—I believe I am intelligent enough, knowledgeable enough and sensitive enough to understand that GWTW is plagued with the repressive aspects of 1940s America to which Ridley is pointing.
To remind you, Mark Twain’s 1884 novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was called the “most grotesque example of racism I’ve ever seen in my life” by a school administrator in Virginia in 1982. According to the American Library Association, Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most frequently challenged book in the United States during the 1990s. In 2003, a high school student and her grandmother, from Renton, Washington, proposed banning the book from the Renton School District — all of it because of the frequent use of the N-word. The book has since been banned from a number of school districts and public libraries. And, in a show of poetic justice, I suppose, in 2016, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was removed from a public school district in Virginia along with “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The inmates have taken over the institution and the first thing they did was burn down the library.
Now, John Ridley is a bright and sane individual, and he states outright: “I don’t think ‘Gone With the Wind’ should be relegated to a vault in Burbank. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were.”
And there, at Ridley’s entirely reasonable request, is the gaping opening to a repressive hell that would devour free thinking and creativity in America and, for that matter, what’s left of the civilized world. Because culture and cultural policy are not carefully guided by the likes of John Ridley. It is rather led with the frenzied marriage of mob rule, political appetite and corporate greed. And those three – the zealots, the politicians and the corporations, be they motivated by sex, race, religion or money – are capable of flattening our cultural landscape in a matter of months. It all depends on how many bulldozers and c-4 packages they’ll muster.
This is not an exaggeration.
The Buddhas of Bamyan were two 6th-century monumental statues of Gautama Buddha carved into the side of a cliff in the Bamyan valley in the Hazarajat region of central Afghanistan, 140 miles northwest of Kabul at an elevation of 8,200 ft. The two statues represented the classic blended style of Gandhara art.
The statues were blown up and destroyed in March 2001 by the Taliban, on orders from leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, after the Taliban government had declared that they were idols.
The Middle East and Southern Europe are full of beheaded and mutilated Greek sculptures which, judging by what was left of them, were probably magnificent. They were destroyed by the ignorant Muslim hordes that poured out of the Arab peninsula in the 7th century and while they had never created anything of beauty, they were quite good at destroying beautiful Art.
The Nazis were easily as determined and several orders more proficient at burning and destroying objects of art, science and thoughts their pagan fascism abhorred.
None of which was suggested, or even imagined, by John Ridley, of course. But where do we draw the line? Where do we stop to wonder about the inverse of our First amendment right to free speech, which is our right to read and view whatever we damn please? It’s taken the American public centuries to get rid of censorship, and now a decade of Me Too and Black Lives Matter is bringing it back in torrents.
It’s true that in matters of offensive art there’s no consistency and often no logic. United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, in describing his threshold test for obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964, explained why the material at issue was not obscene, and therefore was protected speech that could not be censored, wrote: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [pornography], and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.”
But since the days of Justice Stewart America no longer has restrictions on obscene material, nor should it now reinvent them. We are grownups, we are perfectly capable of differentiating between the artistic values of GWTW and its underlying messages which are forgiving of the horrors of slavery in the American South. What I fear the most is that the combination of mob rule in the form of nationwide BLM campaigns regularly picking new targets to vilify; political hate mongers such as Al Sharpton; and corporations such as HBO, have just been empowered by one of the most gifted screenwriters alive to launch their own enterprising version of Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”