What Should We Do With Old Racist Movies on Streaming Platforms?

Hattie McDaniel and Vivien Leigh both won Academy Awards for their roles in 1946's ‘Gone With the Wind.’

Yesterday, HBO Max temporarily pulled Gone With the Wind from its library. Announcing the decision, the channel’s statement read, “These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today.” It pledged to bring the 1939 movie back at a later date, alongside “a discussion of its historical context.”

Given the newness of the channel (it launched May 27), HBO Max’s sudden desire to denounce Gone With the Wind’s racism feels fairly flimsy. The promotional hype for the platform was very specific about how much effort had been put into creating a high quality collection. But somehow, still, a movie awash with Black stereotypes and confederate romanticism made the cut. Why? Gone With the Wind might be a landmark in cinema, but great production values don’t undo racist content.

When Gone With the Wind does return at a later date, HBO Max says it will do so alongside “a denouncement ... but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

That approach is one already being put into practice by Disney. Last November, Disney+ abandoned its initial plans to cut racist scenes from its films and instead added disclaimers. Now, before you are subjected to Dumbo’s crows or Lady and the Tramp’s Siamese cats, viewers are warned about it. “This program is presented as originally created,” the channel tells you. “It may contain outdated cultural depictions.”

There is no single standard that streaming channels adhere to when it comes to overtly racist content. And maybe there should be. Because The Birth of a Nation—arguably one of the most racist films in history—is currently available to stream via Dish Network’s Sling TV. What’s more, the description on Sling’s website contains zero content warning—not for the glorification of the KKK, not for white actors in blackface, and not for its depiction of Black men as over-sexed savages.

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Instead, Sling describes the film thusly: “The friendship between two families is torn apart by the developing Civil War. Fighting for opposing armies, the consequences of war are shown in their lives through major historical developments such as Lincoln’s assassination and the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan.”

Given that the NAACP and civil rights leaders protested and boycotted the film’s release in 1915, it’s hard to fathom why any major channel would feel the need to carry it in 2020 at all—let alone without any kind of disclaimer. Before streaming, The Birth of a Nation was relegated to college classrooms, where it was used not as entertainment, but to demonstrate a monstrous moment in history.

Even Disney+ has drawn a line by refusing to stream Song of the South. The 1946 movie, most famous for the Oscar-winning “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” has not been widely available in America since a 40th anniversary-related theatrical release in 1986. In the years since, Disney has refused to release it on DVD or Blu-ray. When Disney+ launched, and a Change.org petition was created to lobby for it to be on the channel, it failed to reach its goal of 7,500 signatures.

Disney boss Bob Iger offered an explanation for the company’s unwillingness to show or sell Song of the South in 2011. “[It] wouldn’t necessarily sit right or feel right to a number of people today,” he said, and “it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our shareholders to bring it back, even though there would be some financial gain.”

So why isn’t that logic applied more widely? The arguments usually touted for keeping these kinds of films around are rooted in general aversions to both censorship and the re-writing of history. But removing obviously racist content from streaming channels doesn’t erase it from our culture any more than taking down statues of slave traders wipes them from the history books. We all know these things existed, and we all know they represent a different time. So why should we still have to look at them uncritically?

After HBO Max’s decision to temporarily remove Gone With the Wind, movie producer Stephanie Allain (Boyz n the Hood, Hustle & Flow, Dear White People) told CNN: “It’s part of our film history, it’s part of American history. I don’t think it can be tucked away and forgotten. I think we have to look at it. But I think it has to be looked at within the context of racism, slavery, the war and where we are today.”

Allain is right. An outright ban is not the answer. (Because outright bans are almost never the answer.) And yes, we should study history to better understand the present. But these cinematic artifacts belong in classrooms and libraries, not on 2020’s most popular streaming channels. There is still a mountain of material on these platforms that does people of color a disservice, whether through a general lack of accurate representation, no representation at all or via tales that center on white saviors. (To wit, The Help has been trending on Netflix all week.)

In discussing Gone With the Wind this week, BBC media editor Amol Rajan noted: “The issue at stake here isn't about one film. It’s about a much broader issue of whether we judge history by modern standards, even while recognizing that what we consider to be modern standards are fluid, contested and will some day themselves be consigned to history. This might be the beginning of a new front in our culture wars, powered by digital media.”

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That's a very optimistic suggestion given the current half-hearted approach. If we can’t get these representations off our televisions at a time where channels are scrambling to reflect the moment (Cops is canceled; Netflix has launched a collection of “complex narratives about the Black experience”), when can we? When streaming platforms refuse to take decisive action, they don't just leave us staring at a legacy we should have moved on from, they stall cultural strides forward.