By Steve Stajich
Let’s begin by creating a somewhat absurd parallel and see if we can come out the other end with something like a handle on the situation. That situation being that the Orpheum Theater in Memphis screened “Gone With the Wind” this year as part of its annual summer classic series. However, it did so on the very night that white supremacist groups marched with patio lamps and chanted racist Nazi slogans in Charlottesville. Two weeks and many online complaints later, the theater announced that “Wind” would no longer be a part of that summer series.
Now here’s my parallel; indulge me for just a paragraph or two. Most of us seem to understand and accept the desire for cities in that region of the United States often referred to as “The South” to now want to pull down statues of Confederate army “heroes”. But let’s imagine that, fearing the recent visibility of Neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups, public libraries in the South started removing copies of Adolph Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” from their book shelves.
If that was happening, I would argue that there was an apples and oranges comparison in play that was broaching a rewrite of history. The event of Confederate hero statues being prominent in public spaces implies an endorsement by the city wherein the statue resides of all that which the Confederacy stood for. Whereas the presence of copies of “Mein Kampf” in public libraries implies only that books be available so that readers can read them and make up their own minds about the content. It aligns with our national desire for freedom of speech.
Now if for some bizarre reason an American city had a public space statue of the book “Mein Kampf”, that would be another situation. It would most certainly be viewed as an endorsement of the book and its contents. It would be something else besides the availability of the book to the public in libraries.
When the Memphis movie theater announced it was no longer going to show “Gone With the Wind” in its summer series it became fearful that the theater and maybe even the city was somehow endorsing the representations of slavery in the “classic” film. And if not that, well, it didn’t want to be viewed as pouring gasoline on what was becoming an increasingly volatile situation in that region of the nation.
If a similar mentality somehow invaded the minds of those programing the Turner Classic Film channel on cable, many of the films of John Wayne would need to disappear because they so often show the genocide of Native Americans as the actions of brave (white) armed pioneers. Then the Charlie Chan movies would have to go, and one day every single film comedy with a wacky Italian chef or other stereotype would need to be removed from the playlist.
If it did come to this, the assumption would have to be that the public cannot see old and outdated representations without context. I have to admit, there is a tiny part of me that wouldn’t mind a rating or warning on John Wayne films stating “Natives are killed en masse for real estate in this outdated photoplay regarding the conquest of the American West.”
Perhaps we would eventually not trust TV viewers to effectively context, well, anything. Imagine a warning on reruns of the series “The Dick van Dyke Show” that stated “Female roles represent the status of women during the years 1961 to 1966.” Lord knows how involved a disclaimer would be on any reruns of the “Amos and Andy” TV series from the early ‘50s.
But we live in a time when context is readily available to anyone with a smartphone or computer. Although one might effectively argue that there is as much incorrect context as (politically or otherwise) correct context available on the Internet. But the decisions on what information to accept as valid or applicable should rest with the user.
My grandfather, who fought as a U.S. Army colonel in World War II in the Pacific, had a copy of “Mein Kampf” on the bookshelf of his living room. He didn’t feel any need to hide it, although as a kid I never asked to borrow it. My youthful context was this: That’s the book where Hitler makes a case for what a smart guy he was and I had it on pretty good authority –including my public school education – that Hitler wasn’t worth the effort.
But maybe that was not only a missed opportunity, but a mistake. Students of film might not seek out D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) because they’ve been warned multiple times that it celebrates the Klu Klux Klan, in fact showing the armies with white hoods literally riding to the rescue. (It was originally titled “The Clansman”, with correct spelling.) But those students would be missing the experience of viewing a film that was the first to sustain a three-hour narrative over 12 reels. We also miss things when we presume that audiences and the public can’t create their own context and therefore need to be protected from creative works. And that editing, if you will, approaches a rewrite. Right now, the public is being lectured almost weekly on avoiding “fake news” although news about fake news seems to be getting through the pipe easily enough. Consider the source, and trust yourself that you will effectively fit it into context.