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HBO Max removes Gone with the Wind for being a racist ‘product of its time’

But the streaming service sees a path to reinstatement

Mammy laces Scarlett O’Hara’s dress in Gone with the Wind Image: Warner Bros. Home Video
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

On Tuesday, 12 Years a Slave and Let It Fall filmmaker John Ridley penned a rousing op-ed in the Los Angeles Times calling on WarnerMedia to remove the 1939 epic Gone with the Wind from HBO Max.

“As a filmmaker I get that movies are often snapshots of moments in history,” Ridley wrote. “Even the most well-intentioned films can fall short in how they represent marginalized communities. Gone With the Wind, however, is its own unique problem. It doesn’t just ‘fall short’ with regard to representation. It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”

Late on Wednesday night, the media company agreed, and pulled the film from the streaming library.

In a statement to Polygon, HBO Max admitted that Gone with the Wind was “a product of its time” and depicts ethnic and racial prejudices that are 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 those depictions would be irresponsible,” HBO Max said in its statement. “These depictions are certainly counter to WarnerMedia’s values.”

Protests have media companies rethinking shows and movies

In the wake of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the racially motivated shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, people have taken to the streets to remind the country that Black Lives Matter and systemic change is necessary. The entertainment industry has, in some cases, reconsidered its own depiction of the police in media and its responsibility in shaping the conception of the law in America.

This week, Paramount Network canceled the long-running reality series Cops, while A&E is “re-evaluating” what to do with Live P.D., a show that has captured police killings on camera and become the subject of obvious controversy. Caught in an existential moment, the cast of the police-centric sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine donated $100,000 to bail relief funds as it figured out what to do next.

But Hollywood’s issues run deeper than police procedurals. Archaic, objectively racist films still have a place in the canon, and in the case of HBO Max, have become the currency of a major streaming platform’s launch.

Gone with the Wind has persisted as a bona fide classic. Produced by the legendary David O. Selznick and helmed by The Wizard of Oz director Victor Fleming, the Civil War-set romance played for years in roadshow form from 1939-1941 and returned to theaters in countless re-releases, helping it earn nearly $3.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars. The film picked up eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and and Best Supporting Actress award for Hattie McDaniel, who played the slave Mammy, and became the first African American to win an Oscar.

Gone with the Wind is a milestone in film history, but the debate over whether its legacy should remain the same is not new, having been deconstructed in historical writing and pulled from theaters in protest over the last 20 years. In 2015, prominent critic and film historian Lou Lumenick caused a stir when he said Gone with the Wind should “go the way of the Confederate flag,” noting that “Warner Bros., which has owned [the film] since 1996, resisted any analysis of the film’s problematic racial politics until a 26-minute featurette was included with [a 2014] Blu-ray set.”

Last year, in a podcast dedicated to Hattie McDaniel, film historian and podcaster Karina Longworth poked holes in the low-bar achievement of honoring the actress with an Oscar; her life after the win was full of stereotypes and erasure.

Gone with the Wind is a classic, and also a stain on Hollywood’s record, but in his op-ed, Ridley argues that there is still room for important-but-problematic films on a platform like HBO Max. He was not calling for censorship, which the removal could have been: In the same way Disney has attempted to erase the existence of its racist animated/live-action feature film Song of the South, Warner Bros. could easily lock up Gone with the Wind until it’s “lost” to time. But Ridley has other hopes.

“I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were,” he wrote.

That too seems to be HBO Max’s plan. Similar to Disney Plus’ content warnings on films like Dumbo and Peter Pan, and its own DVD reissues of Looney Tunes cartoons, which feature racist images tied to unremovable plot points, HBO Max intends to return the film to the platform with “historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed,” the company said in its statement. Polygon has asked for additional information on the timeline.

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