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Will escalating political correctness result in the censoring or banning of classic movies?

Posted on May 15th, 2017
Posted on May 15th, 2017

‘Blue Back’ played by Chief John Big Tree in “Drums Along the Mohawk”

by Coop Cooper

Last week I happened to catch the 1939 film “Drums Along the Mohawk” starring Henry Fonda about colonial settlers running afoul of Indians and the British during the American Revolution. In an early scene, Fonda’s character, Gilbert, brings his pampered and delicate new bride, Lana (played by Claudette Colbert), to his modest homestead in the wilderness. The first night they arrive, while Gilbert is out gathering firewood, an old ‘Indian’ appears at the door, frightening Lana. She collapses in a fit of hysteria and when Gilbert rushes in and tries to explain to her that the Indian is his trusted friend ‘Blue Back’, she continues her hysterical fit until Gilbert slaps very hard her across the face, snapping her out of it. Blue Back walks outside and brings back a large stick. He tells Gilbert that Lana is a fine-looking wife but a stick would be more efficient in beating her next time she gets out of hand.

In 1939, this scene was meant to be humorous, but now in the modern era, the laughter would more likely come from how un-politically correct this moment is. Some would even find it outright offensive/sexist/racist, while others might even want it removed from the air. Of course, in America, movies fall under the protection of the 1st Amendment, but since the desire to ban ‘hate-speech’ regardless of ‘free speech’ is gaining favor in popular culture, the threat of banning movies and other controversial content in the 21st Century is no longer far-fetched.

In the United States, activists have been successful in applying pressure to remove and ban controversial flags, historical monuments and religious symbols from public property. The wisdom of these actions should always be up for debate, but some activists have taken things further to demand the banning of literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, from schools. Although these books contain important themes and messages relevant to modern racial discussions, some feel that the racial slurs presented in the pages are too offensive for students to be exposed to, no matter the positive intentions of the authors.

James Baskett as ‘Uncle Remus’ in “Song of the South”

On the Hollywood front, in 1986 Disney permanently shelved “Song of the South”, the 1946 live-action/animated film due to criticism that the depiction of the Uncle Remus (James Baskett) character made slavery seem ‘pleasant’ and that the animated characters of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear represented offensive African American stereotypes (although Disney somehow made VHS and LaserDisc copies of the film available overseas). Likewise, Warner Brothers has quietly retired classic “Looney Tunes” episodes from television due to portrayals of ethnic and racial stereotypes. While one could argue that this content aimed at children might be considered inappropriate in the modern age, what’s to keep many of the classic Hollywood films from meeting a similar fate?

Racist???

In 2016, Salon.com published an article by University of Florida African American history teacher, Ibram X. Kendi, titled “The 15 most racist Oscar films of all time: Here’s why #OscarsSoWhite is not a surprise”. The article predictably lists “Song of the South” and “Gone With the Wind” but also includes “The Blind Side”, “Avatar” and a few stretches of the imagination such as “Planet of the Apes” and “Rocky”. Alarming, considering there is a group of impressionable minds out there who are quick to believe anything labeled ‘racist’ by any hack writer or academic as fact without researching it themselves or questioning the author’s motives.

Nate Parker in “The Birth of a Nation” (2016)

This begs the question: Will social justice warriors facilitate the banning of old films that include content they deem objectionable? At what point do we draw the line between “Cinematic history must be preserved…” and “We must protect the public from content deemed racist, sexist and offensive”? I don’t hear any critics calling for the burning of the first ‘talkie’ film, “The Jazz Singer” (1921), in which Al Jolson sings the song “Mammy” while wearing blackface makeup. Not yet, anyway. But in this hyper-PC age, it may be forthcoming, no matter its historic value, or long-forgotten context (according to some sources, Al Jolson, an outspoken equal-rights advocate, was attempting to show solidarity for African Americans who were not allowed to act in films at that time). Nate Parker’s 2015 film “The Birth of a Nation”, about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising, appropriated the film’s title from D.W. Griffith’s first silent epic “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) which features blatant racial bigotry and ends with the Ku Klux Klan suppressing an African American uprising. Did Parker do this to diminish Griffith’s film? Was it an attempt to wipe it from the minds of viewers and replace it with his own vision? According to Parker in an interview with “Filmmaker Magazine”, yes.

I can’t and won’t defend racism, sexism or discrimination in the modern age or the past, but I do wonder how far this movement to quarantine controversial history from the public eye will go and how it will effect classic cinema/TV and other forms of vintage entertainment. Western society once used to ban films for being blasphemous in the eyes of religion or for being too violent or sexually explicit – or all three. That doesn’t happen as much these days, but the banning of films for racial/sexist/discrimination content now seems much more likely, and the venerable classics may not get immunity.

Tipper Gore (left) and Susan Baker (right) at the Senate hearings on explicit music

If this still seems far-fetched, lest we forget: Tipper Gore, wife of former Vice President Al Gore, was so offended by the Prince song “Darling Nikki”, in 1985 she and three other wives of politicians were able to use their political influence to bully the music industry into either censoring content, or issue “Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory” stickers on a large percentage of cassette tape and CD cases, a practice which still exists to this day. Now that we know what four determined activists are capable off, we need to ask ourselves these questions about potential future film censorship: What historical forms of entertainment and art are actually at risk? Will pressure from the outraged public, media and politicians cause certain films to be locked away in a vault? Will they contain ‘trigger warnings’? Will the objectionable parts be edited out like the Chinese government currently does to Hollywood films or will they be left intact so people can form opinions for themselves?

Time will tell.

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