Blackface Blackout

What Film and TV Are Getting Wrong About Past Racism



Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, as Scarlett O’Hara and Mammy in a scene from Gone With the Wind. The movie has been temporarily removed from the HBO Max streaming service.

“Stop killing us!” demanded Black communities. “What if we pulled an episode of The Golden Girls off of streaming services instead?” asked famous white people.

“Systemic racism and inequality are compounding the pandemic, and we are suffering!” cried Black leaders. “We hear you. As of this moment, nobody can watch Gone With the Wind on HBO!” responded powerful Americans, affluent enough to actually make a difference.

Nothing encapsulates America’s inability to achieve meaningful change than responding to a list of specific demands with nonsense, bullshit gestures. In June, when what could be the largest movement in US history first began, everyone with a soul felt compelled to do something. To those in positions of power, “something” meant exactly none of the things that were being explicitly requested.

HBO at least temporarily took down the antebellum porno flick that remains the highest grossing film ever (adjusted for inflation). Episodes of 30 Rock, Scrubs, The Office, and Golden Girls featuring blackface disappeared. They even pulled an episode of Community where a character paints his skin literal black while playing Dungeons and Dragons for a “dark elf” costume, a move that arguably made the episode racist when it wasn’t necessarily so in the first place.

The only people who think it is okay to promote blackface or similar content are also likely to slyly flash the “okay” symbol in photo ops. That said, making these films and shows unavailable is more than just cowardly, although it is definitely that, as it is unquestionably an attempt to pretend that shit never happened. It is more than just a distraction, although it is definitely that, as Malcom X said “The white man will try to satisfy us with symbolic victories rather than economic equity and justice.”

The worst part about simply “disappearing” these movies and TV episodes is that it makes it so white audiences don’t have to think about how to handle problematic content, especially problematic content that they love. So, let’s talk about what studios and networks should actually do and also how viewers should approach this material. Yes, I realize that “should” is doing a lot of work in that sentence…

Context Not Coverup
Warner Bros has done a lot of things wrong, and I don’t just mean greenlighting multiple Fantastic Beasts films. One thing they got right: a disclaimer they put on racist old cartoons.

Unlike Disney, WB didn’t Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah gross Looney Tunes animated features into oblivion. They added text before them that clearly states that the racist depictions shown “were wrong then and are wrong today.” But it also explains that taking them down “would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.” If the team behind Speedy Gonzalez and Foghorn Leghorn can get this right, let’s not pretend that it’s all that complicated.

It should be painfully obvious why this approach is better than Tina Fey saying “whoops-a-racist” and vanishing “30 Rock” episodes. That isn’t to say that all disclaimers are acceptable. Disney+ put one out that said Dumbo “may” have “outdated cultural depictions.” There is a character who is literally named Jim Crow. So, yeah, just maybe the film has some “outdated cultural depictions.” Also, that text comes after a warning that, gasp, Dumbo shows tobacco use…

So not all contextual guidance is equal, but it is almost certainly better than pulling a reverse Tinkerbell and disappearing racist content via studios giving themselves a round of applause for being “woke.” These kinds of intros will hopefully prevent victims of racism from being surprised by upsetting or traumatizing content while also holding creators accountable to their past.

On a numbered “Fixing Racism To-Do List,” all of this falls likely well into the double digits. But considering how pop culture influences, reinforces, and codifies our behavior, it is still important (albeit with a lower-case “i”). Arguably more important is that viewers do the work of processing racism in the film and TV that they have enjoyed in the past…

How to Watch Problematic Content
Don’t!
Nobody should be making new movies or television shows that engage in racist shenanigans. I am delighted that everyone suddenly woke up and realized that white actors probably shouldn’t get paid to voice animated characters of different ethnicities while using the same accents racist grandpas used to tell “jokes.” No one should make more content that is bigoted and bad, and if they do, we shouldn’t support it!

However, what happens when you go to watch a film or TV show you love, and—uh-oh Strom-Thurmand-Os—you realize it has a heaping helping of hidden hate? The first thing you should do is acknowledge this probably means you have grown as a person, at least a little bit. Don’t build yourself a cake about it, but instead of seeing it as a negative that you “lost” something you enjoyed, see it as a positive that you may be kinda better as a human.

From there, the most important thing is acknowledging the flawed material in a meaningful way. No, you don’t have to Tweet about it. Nobody has to Tweet about anything other than accounts that post kids trying to make jokes like “Why does a rhinoceros have a big face? So it can touch a robot.” But you do have to think about why you didn’t find that racist material objectionable in the first place and how you can take what you’ve learned into the real world.

There isn’t even a metaphorical trashcan big enough to house all the pop culture that would need to be pitched if we tossed away everything with even a hint of racism. That said, I can’t tell you the clear, bright line between what older movies and TV you should shove into the recycling bin of your brain and never revisit. I can only tell you that what matters most is that you don’t pretend it never existed.
Ignoring or vanishing racially problematic film and TV takes away an easy way for us to be self-reflective. So much of the work that lies ahead is going to be understandably and importantly hard. Let’s not avoid one of the itty-bitty baby steps that could bridge us from our horrific past to our utopian, Star Trek future.

To put it another way: The KKK wears masks because visibility and identification should be kryptonite to racists. Always keep racist stuff where we can keep an eye on it.


Category: Film, Top Story

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