Following on from last week’s post about “Cancel Culture”, here’s my take on a similarly thorny issue. How should we approach historic works of art that are openly ideologically insidious?
How should we approach, for example, DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation or Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will? The former is may have laid down the grammar of narrative cinema, but it is also one of the most hideously racist films of all time. The latter was extraordinary documentary film-making, but it was Nazi propaganda. Should these films be banned, as many have urged?
My answer is absolutely not. History should not be censored or airbrushed. Instead, these films should be curated. They should be shown with accompanying contextual explanations. For example, I remember when Channel 4 broadcast The Birth of a Nation, it had a piece before it discussing the film’s place in cinema history, and legacy of appalling racism. Triumph of the Will can be approached in precisely the same manner. By burying the past, we cannot learn from it, and these films are vital documents.
In the same way, I oppose censorship of problematic literature, whether it’s the replacing of racist or sexist words in Enid Blyton adventure stories, or the banning of Tintin in the Congo. The latter volume was eventually released in the UK, again with an introduction providing appropriate curation of the cultural context, and its inherent colonial racism.
Curation is the key here, and it’s something I wish Disney would get to grips with, rather than trying to constantly airbrush its history – or the history of other films on Disney+. Whether it’s the relatively trivial (but prudish) censorship of nudity in Splash or the slightly more disturbing removal of an episode of The Simpsons featuring Michael Jackson’s guest vocal (“cancel” culture again), I do believe in letting history be history. Of course, this is nothing new for Disney, who have retrospectively censored much of their work (those little cuts to Fantasia, for instance). Also, what is wrong with a little dark (and revealing) humour? Was that “casting couch” gag by Stinky Pete on the end credit bloopers of Toy Story 2 really so offensive that it had to be removed on Disney+?
I do accept that there are some additional considerations in all of the above arguments. For example, the influence on children. But these issues require good parenting, not censorship. When I recently showed my youngest Goldfinger, he enjoyed it, but during the infamous barn scene with Sean Connery and Honor Blackman, he piped up and declared “That’s sexual assault!” Times and attitudes have changed, but it is entirely possible for today’s children to enjoy escapist entertainment like James Bond, and have a healthy understanding of why his actions are not to be emulated, without the need for nanny censorship. Thankfully no-one is airbrushing James Bond at present, but I just make the comment to illustrate a point.
UPDATE (15.6.2020): One of many ripple effects amid the recent outcry following the brutal killing of George Floyd involved Gone with the Wind being removed from the HBO Max streaming service, with a promise it would return with appropriate curation. I have no problem with this. Gone with the Wind is and will remain one of my all-time favourite films. It is also guilty of racist stereotyping and romanticising slave culture of the Confederate south; an ahistoric perspective increasingly offensive in today’s political landscape. Curation was the mature, progressive, and indeed correct way to deal with this, without altering one frame of the original film.