Blurred Lines: The Realities And Fantasies Of Film And Television

This past week, the newly launched HBO Max pulled “Gone with the Wind” from its film library. Its removal comes in response to the social unrest sweeping across the United States, resulting in quite possibly the largest civil rights movement in human history. Since the classic film has been removed, other series and films have received similar treatment. The British comedy “Little Britain” was removed from streaming services and “Cops” was cancelled via the Paramount Network after a 32-season run. Further calls are being made to have “The Help” removed from the Netflix streaming service after it surged in viewership in the wake of the George Floyd protests. Even the children’s show “Paw Patrol” has received criticism for propagating a “good-cop” fantasy to young viewers.

The fundamental argument is that these films or shows have perpetuated white-savior concepts, false police narratives, and blatant racism across the medium of the moving picture and are therefore culpable for the ramifications of police brutality and racism. Essentially, they are not part of the solution – they are part of the problem. But while this quasi-censorship stops at the ends of our wide-screen TVs, it presents a multitude of perplexing issues surrounding our cultural lineage and how we observe our past.

Forgotten with the Wind

“Gone with the Wind,” which arrived to the public back in 1939, is considered by many to be a cinematic classic and one of the most popular films ever made, possibly the most successful if adjusted for inflation. It resulted in the first Academy Award for a person of color, awarded to Hattie McDaniel for her performance as “Mammy.” But “Gone with the Wind” is also riddled with controversy, as even at the Oscars ceremony McDaniel was denied seating with her fellow nominees.

A spokesperson for HBO Max told CNN Business that the film is “a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of these depictions would be irresponsible.” While it was stated that the film will return to HBO Max with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions, the spokesperson’s contention echoes the moral presentism of racism: that it has always been wrong. And while this assertion appears accurate, it is also problematic.

Historians typically abstain from implementing moral judgments when observing the past. They restrict themselves to describing what happened and refrain from language that suggests evaluation. In a way, they practice a degree of moral relativism, recognizing the problems of the past while keeping modern ethics within its present context. Now, of course the vast majority of the public are not historians. Many argue that morality is absolute, contending that it is not anachronistic to apply timeless standards to the past. Essentially, the standards of today can be applied to the standards of yesterday. No one is attempting to argue that slavery is permissible in this day and age, that racism and bigotry should be tolerated amongst the masses, but rather that in 1939, things were different.

Regarding “Gone with the Wind,” it has been argued that “it is precisely because of the ongoing, painful patterns of racial injustice and disregard for Black lives that ‘Gone with the Wind’ should stay in circulation and remain available for viewing, analysis and discussion,” as stated by CNN’s Jacqueline Stewart. Even Spike Lee has argued that “[Gone with the Wind] should be seen.” He told “The View” in the same interview that “one of the most racist films ever, D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ should be seen.” As artists themselves, Stewart and Lee see the educational value in showcasing timeless films with relative themes and representations.

Ultimately, film – and to an extent TV – are forms of art. Art requires revaluation and reinterpretation, but it must remain accessible to the viewer even if it appears controversial. Mark Twain’s novels and even Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind are not rebuked by the public but accepted as pieces of literature contextualized to a time in history where racism and slavery were appropriated to the masses of literate white folk; nor are they smothered with warnings and disclaimers.

At the moment, it appears as though the impulsive nature of modern times is propelling us to overstep our understanding of relative morality, as we stray closer and closer to a silencing of the past in favor of a cleaner today.

Humor & Taste

Obviously, it is integral to the social relevancy and moral progression of film and TV that the art form integrates contemporary ethical trends. Black face is clearly out of comedic taste and the propagation of white-savior narratives is a dated technique. But taste is a fascinating and ever-dynamic piece of art evaluation. Especially in comedy, taste is what determines the humor of a sketch and the extent that it can ride the fine line of offensiveness and bigotry. This is the unfortunate dilemma that is facing the comedians and comedies that still circulate on streaming services and abroad. It was what called for the removal of “Little Britain,” “Bo Selecta,” and “The League of Gentlemen” in recent days, as reported by Sky News.

Offence has become a loaded term as the movement towards political correctness ever grows. Jokes that exist on the backs of stereotypes, dated ideologies, or the erosion of current trends are viewed objectively as offensive. Humor can be seen as an act of war against an entire population if it is deemed inappropriate or of poor taste. But this sort of public opinion harkens back to the first emergence of such concept within French art Salons, as a middle class slowly formed in the 18th century.

Artists were burned at the stake if their pieces did not fit the criteria of self-appointed critics whose opinions were sought as the word of God. Today is no different. Acclaimed comedian and provocateur Ricky Gervais highlighted that people nowadays seemingly search out for offense. Speaking to LBC’s James O’Brien back in 2019, Gervais stated “I’ve always said, just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. Some people are offended by equality, we’ve seen that more and more in the past few years.”

Now the determination of such offence is ultimately down to the studios and broadcasting services that distribute such sketches, so they may do as they please. But we must be careful not to let the rule of public opinion be the source of objective humor, and certainly not objective morality. It is that very framework of authority that built racism into a systemic issue that continues to plague our nation today.

Setting A Precedent

Echoing the rhetoric of my previous article, it is imperative that we realize that as society continues down this unprecedented path today, we are planting the seeds of precedent for tomorrow. The standards and mores we institute now will continue on for years to come until they are uprooted and evolve once more. We would be naïve to believe that everything we do now is unequivocally progressive, and that its moral sense will never be tested in a future that believes itself to be in the right just as we do now. For right now we are arguing that a children’s show is at fault of perpetuating a narrative that police are good people.

“‘Paw Patrol’ seems harmless enough, and that’s the point: the movement rests on understanding that cops do plenty of harm” wrote Amanda Hess of the NY Times. The entire critique exists in a vacuum enclosed around the archetype of the police, as if this is the only facet of life that a children show handles with innocence and false comfort. No one cares to mention that on average, 85,000 medical malpractice suits are filed each year, with the actual number of medical injuries estimated to be about one million per year according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. And these suits, despite popular narrative, do not result in the loss of license to practice. Much like the strength and corroboration of police unions, medical practitioners rarely lose their licenses as it would require proof of intentional harm or reckless negligence.

Yet TV is littered with shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Good Doctor,” and “Chicago MED” that “glorify” and dramatize hospital work. Or perhaps the fact that back in early 2002, The Boston Globe revealed the extent of sexual abuse cases that pervade the Catholic Church. The findings were groundbreaking and uncovered the deception that clergy members were employing to protect the overall image of the holy and just institution. Sound familiar?

Film and TV dramatize reality to make it consumable, but also to make it questionable. It’s a two-way mirror through which the world can reflect on itself in the making and observe itself in the viewing experience. It glorifies and dramatizes every faculty of the human condition and the society that it makes up. “Joker” seemingly showcased both the sensitivity of mental illness as well as the grave danger it poses when it premiered last year, with its central antihero brutally murdering several people throughout its runtime. We celebrate reality shows as though they are a genuine representation of people’s lives and emotional connection. But like any art form, film and TV is a show. It is fixed from its initial conception. The minute we believe it to be reality is the minute the lines become blurred and the art form disappears.

But it is also important that art be honest. While I have been rather critical in writing this, I do think it is integral to the art and the business of film and TV that they adapt to the changing times. Initiate conversations regarding socio-economic issues rather than regurgitate them years following their significance. I sincerely believe that TV and film are becoming more forward thinking, but that is not to rob older pieces of their value. They simply existed in a different time.

What these changing times have me wondering is whether we are progressing as a society. Perhaps we are moving towards some grand sense of moral righteousness, a world of complete tolerance. Or perhaps we are just changing with the seasons, a tree shedding its dying leaves – gone with the wind.

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