clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Amid the Black Lives Matter Movement, Hollywood Examines Its Own History of Racism

HBO Max has added a recontextualizing introduction to ‘Gone With the Wind,’ while networks have wiped episodes of everything from ‘30 Rock’ to ‘The Golden Girls’ that feature blackface. There’s no one right answer to solving the ills of an entire industry—the only certainty is that none of these issues are new. 

Ringer illustration

Any kid who grows up on Disney knows about Splash Mountain. Along with the Matterhorn and its aptly named corollary Space Mountain, the ride is a necessary stop on any self-respecting thrill-seeker’s visit to Disneyland, with the long lines to prove it. But Splash Mountain is more than a watery tourist trap. It’s also one of the last, oddly decontextualized scrap of a legacy that Disney otherwise wholly disowns.

The ride is based on the 1946 film Song of the South, which has long been criticized for its use of racist stereotypes and idealization of what may or may not be the antebellum South. (The movie’s actual time frame is somewhat unclear.) Based on Joel Chandler Harris’s collection of Uncle Remus stories, Song of the South deploys a number of dated and destructive archetypes: dialects written down and exaggerated by white writers; omission of the atrocities of the Southern plantation, one of which provides the film’s setting; the myth of the happy slave. In the face of that criticism, Disney has tread a delicate, contradictory line, removing the film from U.S. distribution even as it remains available to those who know where to look.

Walking through Splash Mountain—opened in the late 1980s at both Disneyland and Disney World, two years after Song of the South was pulled from circulation—is itself a head-spinning experience. Compared to Mickey or Goofy, figures like Br’er Rabbit and Br’er Fox are strange and unfamiliar, especially for kids too young to recognize the minstrel archetypes on which they’re based; meanwhile Black characters Uncle Remus and Aunt Tempe, played by Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel, are excluded from the ride entirely. At the same time, the song piped in over the speakers, “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” yields instant recognition; the song is featured prominently on countless Disney compilation albums. The entire ride is a brick-and-mortar mixed message, its inspiration both carefully hidden and proudly on display.

“It’s trying to use the cuddly aspects of the movie and this vague Southern milieu without engaging with not only the racist, problematic material in Song of the South, but the idea of Black people existing at all,” says Karina Longworth, the writer and podcaster behind the Hollywood history show You Must Remember This. Longworth dedicated a six-episode season of the show to Song of the South in the fall of 2019 in anticipation of the launch of Disney+, which excludes the film from an otherwise comprehensive catalog. (In a shareholder’s meeting at the time of the launch, then-Disney head Bob Iger called it “not appropriate in today’s world.”)

But soon, Splash Mountain will be a thing of the past. In late June, Disney announced its plans to revamp the ride to feature Princess Tiana, the title character of 2009’s The Princess and the Frog—and Disney’s first African American princess. “It is important that our guests see ourselves in the experiences we create,” wrote executive Carmen Smith in a public statement. Implicit in Smith’s words, though never stated outright, is the idea that Black guests do not see themselves in the figures from Song of the South. Though it’s also notable that Disney’s statement doesn’t even mention the 1946 film. “They made it about remodeling it to represent The Princess and the Frog,” Longworth points out. “I didn’t see anything in that statement about ‘We made a mistake modeling this ride on Song of the South.’”

According to The New York Times, plans to revamp Splash Mountain have been in the works for years, but its timing is hardly arbitrary. In the wake of widespread protests against police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in late May, by some measures the largest in our nation’s history, many entertainment companies have attempted to respond to the movement—often by excising the less savory parts of their archives.

The domino chain started in early June, when the newly launched HBO Max took down the 1939 epic Gone With the Wind after a Los Angeles Times op-ed by screenwriter John Ridley urged its removal. Just a couple weeks later, the film was re-uploaded with a short introduction by film scholar Jacqueline Stewart recapping its fraught history, though not before sparking a backlash that fell along predictable culture-war fault lines. Shortly after, 30 Rock cocreators Tina Fey and Robert Carlock jointly requested the removal of four of the show’s episodes from its current streaming homes on Hulu and Amazon Prime. Fey cited the use of “race-changing makeup,” a euphemistic term for what most would describe as blackface, on actors Jane Krakowski and Jon Hamm. Subsequently, networks from NBC to FX have excised episodes and scenes featuring the use of blackface from the most widely accessible versions of, among others, Community, The Office, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and The Golden Girls. And at the same time that Amazon announced it had acquired all seven seasons of Golden Age standard Mad Men, it also declared it would preface a Season 3 episode featuring a blackface routine with a disclaimer that reads, in part, “the series producers are committed to exposing the injustices and inequities within our society that continue to this day.”

Still more adjustments apply to shows that remain on the air. White actresses Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell both resigned from their roles voicing biracial characters on animated comedies—Slate on the Netflix coming-of-age show Big Mouth, Bell on the Apple TV+ musical Central Park. Subsequently, voice actor Mike Henry stepped down after 20 full years of voicing Black character Cleveland on Family Guy and its spinoff The Cleveland Show, which aired for four seasons from 2009 to 2012.

These adjustments have had immediate consequences that outpace Hollywood’s typically snail’s-pace process of development. But far from resolving the contradictions of outwardly progressive companies with ugly blemishes on the record, these efforts have raised more questions than they answer. Do these measures accomplish their goal of bringing pop culture into line with the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement? Is that goal attainable, or even worthwhile, for a for-profit corporation? Studios and streaming services are making decisions on the fly that try to address age-old problems: What do we do with offensive material that’s nonetheless a part of our worldview? Who is ultimately served by keeping that material out of sight? And what does it take to make these changes more than cosmetic?

There’s no one right answer. But when it comes to such questions, all that’s certain is that none of them are new.

When you pull up Gone With the Wind on HBO Max, its prodigious 221-minute runtime now sports an extra five. Standing in front of fully stocked bookshelves, Jacqueline Stewart holds forth on both the film itself and its place in American history. “Watching Gone With the Wind can be uncomfortable, even painful,” she notes. “Still, it is important that classic Hollywood films remain available to us in their original form for viewing and discussion. They reflect the social context in which they were made, and invite viewers to reflect on their own values and beliefs when watching them now.” Incorporating reminders of Hattie McDaniel’s racist treatment at the Oscars and a history of criticism dating back to before the film’s release, the introduction is both a modern reframing of Gone With the Wind and an argument for its continued existence.

While Gone With the Wind may stand out for its lavish production and mass popularity, it’s hardly an anomaly—the distinct implication of isolating a particular film or TV episode from its predecessors and peers. “What I think a lot of people don’t really understand is that there’s a direct through line in which Gone With the Wind is in the middle. Before that there’s Birth of a Nation, and after that there’s Song of the South,” Longworth says. “And it doesn’t stop there, but those are just three points on the timeline. Three movies that are technologically innovative and have some value, but were also made to appeal to a racist point of view.” It’s not that Gone With the Wind is uniquely racist or insensitive; it’s that Gone with the Wind is an especially prominent product of a systemically racist industry.

Defenders of outdated works tend to respond with some version of the slippery slope argument: Even if everything is racist, you can’t expunge everything from the historical record. Without perspective or consistency, specific flashpoints do seem arbitrary: “I don’t think I’ve heard anyone coming for The Jazz Singer,” observes Alfred Martin, an assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa, referring to the 1927 film starring Al Jolson as a Jewish entertainer who performs in blackface. “What precisely is it that we’re coming for?”

The timing of certain reckonings is also questionable. “30 Rock was being produced in the 2000s, and at the time presumably everybody thought it was fine. Why are we feigning concern about it right now?” Martin asks. “Since 1939, Black folks were saying that Gone With the Wind was a harmful depiction of Black folks, and nobody wanted to listen to us. All of a sudden, in 2020, when this movie is almost 100 years old, now you want to pretend like it’s a problem? That’s partly what some of the anger is around.”

When wielded against critical engagement, the all-or-nothing approach ignores a potential middle path—one that tries to understand prior mistakes rather than sweep them aside. Sometimes, understanding a medium’s full history helps to put its current struggles in context, if not justify them. Nicholas Sammond is a professor of cinema studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation. His work posits that American animation, from its origins, has been rooted in racial stereotypes, and began as part of the same vaudevillian stage revues where blackface and minstrelsy were staples. Many tropes we now see as neutral standards in cartoon comedy, like over-the-top violence à la Itchy & Scratchy, are derived from uglier ideas like Black people’s supposed resilience to pain. The Jazz Singer, meanwhile, is widely considered to be the first feature-length film with sound. Racism in entertainment isn’t a matter of individual actions, but intrinsic to the form.

Of course, it’s hardly feasible to consign all of animation or sound filmmaking to the historical junk heap. It’s just less surprising that Simpsons actor Hank Azaria voiced the South Asian convenience store clerk Apu for decades, despite years of vocal criticism and a widely viewed documentary, when one also acknowledges appalling artifacts like “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” an animated Warner Bros. short that—like Song of the South and Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, a riff on Uncle Tom’s Cabin that features the iconic mouse in blackface—remains conspicuously missing from its parent company’s new streaming service.

In the past, clips like Mickey’s Mellerdrammer have been included in DVD compilations and prefaced by an introduction from film critic Leonard Maltin explaining that images we now consider harmful were accepted in a different, less enlightened time. But Sammond doesn’t think such asterisks are enough when they lack an appropriate sense of awareness and humility. “It is a gesture that is well meaning, but it is completely inadequate,” he says. “The notion that it was just the time ignores the fact that people have been protesting these kinds of representations for generations. The fact that most white people didn’t mind it doesn’t mean that other people didn’t strongly object. A quick disclaimer at the beginning of things—to me, that’s just trying to get off the hook.” Stewart’s prologue to Gone With the Wind avoids this trap, underscoring how producer David O. Selznick was so aware of the film’s critics he put out a statement to mollify them.

This kind of self-absolution is typical of Disney’s response to controversy. When the company stopped circulating Song of the South after its final theatrical release in 1986, there was no announcement or explanation, let alone an admission of fault. The film simply ceased to be available in its entirety, even as Splash Mountain placed its less loaded aspects in full public view. Keeping Song of the South out of sight does less to shield impressionable viewers than protect Disney’s image—especially because the film remains widely available through sites like eBay and YouTube, a secondary market Disney has done little to crack down on.

Longworth and Sammond would both prefer to see Song of the South and relics like it treated more like how HBO Max has approached Gone With the Wind, though both realize its status as children’s entertainment makes the situation more complicated. Besides, a true reckoning with Song of the South would require precisely the sort of introspection Disney has gone great lengths to avoid, possibly because of where it might lead. The debut of both Mickey and Minnie Mouse, “Steamboat Willie,” features a performance of “Turkey in the Straw”—a folk song that, like “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Da,” is derived from the classic minstrel song “Old Zip Coon.”

“I’d love to see Disney bring back Song of the South and own that mistake,” Sammond says. “And really own its own history! Say, ‘We profited from this from the very beginning.’”

To Ira Madison III, a writer for television and the cohost of pop culture podcast Keep It!, an honest accounting can be an act of respect, not erasure. “You go to museums and there are exhibits. There are explainers. There are docents,” he says. “I don’t see why old pieces of film and television should be without explainers for what was going on at the time. It’s better to treat things like art that way.”

Still, to put something in a museum implies it belongs in the past. As exhibited by June’s removals, there is a surplus of more recent missteps that reflect poorly not on a dated society, but on our current one.

As deployed in shows like 30 Rock, Community, or Mad Men, blackface isn’t as straightforward as a white performer donning crude makeup to entertain an obliging audience. In these scenarios, the sheer wrongness of blackface is usually part of the joke, often highlighted by a Black character and used to embarrass the clueless white offender. On Community, hated Spanish teacher Ben Chang shows up to a Dungeons and Dragons game in full makeup Yvette Nicole Brown’s character Shirley calls a “hate crime”; on The Office, warehouse worker Nate dresses up like Zwarte Piet until a text from Dwight advises him otherwise. Mad Men consistently wields hindsight against its rapidly aging patriarchs, with Roger Sterling no exception. (Without any major Black protagonists in the Mad Men ensemble, the visible disgust of Pete Campbell and Don Draper takes the place of an audience surrogate like Community’s Shirley.)

This contemporary use of blackface—which Daily Beast writer Kyndall Cunningham has called “ironic racism”—feels meaningfully distinct from the minstrelsy of last century, though that doesn’t mean it isn’t grievously misguided or evidence of deeper inequalities. “It’s just seen as ‘We’re good liberals. How could we do anything bad? How could we possibly be found at fault for this?’” Sammond says. “It’s only in the last few years that that’s begun to change. It’s not good liberal behavior. It’s not good behavior to assume these stances as if other people didn’t have a say in it.”

Madison sees the practice as an attempt to have it both ways, combining the shock value of offensive imagery with the righteousness of liberal politics. “Blackface shows up, and you have the one Black character in the show make a reference to how bad it is,” he summarizes. “Which, I guess, in some sense is commenting on it, but really, in a way it’s white comedians being ‘edgy,’ and commenting on something while also doing the thing that is being commented on.” It’s also evidence of who tends to be writing the jokes, Madison points out, and who the audience for them is casually assumed to be. “I just feel like those are so emblematic of rooms that don’t have Black people in them. You have Shirley or Toofer [from 30 Rock], but were there any Black people in these writers’ rooms while you’re making this joke and feeling like you need to comment on racism?”

The outright removal of these episodes serves the same purpose as quietly decommissioning Song of the South: saving face without publicly fessing up to major errors, an incentive all the more powerful when it involves massive institutions and powerful producers like Fey or Greg Daniels. And sometimes, the desire to save face ends up backfiring altogether.

First aired in 1988, the episode of Golden Girls titled “Mixed Blessings” is a classically structured half-hour. In the “A” plot, Dorothy’s son Michael gets engaged to a woman who happens to be Black; in the “B” plot, Rose and Blanche try out a beauty regimen, including mud masks. The two strands collide when Dorothy’s potential in-laws come to visit at the very moment Rose and Blanche emerge in their masks, their faces covered in brown goop. “Mixed Blessings” is not an example of blackface, even the postmodern, semi-ironic kind. It’s an example of two white women embarrassed by the potential appearance of blackface, and Hulu’s removal speaks far more to C-suite anxiety than any genuine outrage on the part of its viewers.

Martin, who is currently editing a collection on The Golden Girls and researching its Black fan base, found the choice to pull the episode almost patronizing: “Pulling it from an archive seems to not only be an overreach; it is also rooted in this idea that folks can’t make the decision that this is not an instance of blackface and is very different from 30 Rock and Mad Men.” Held up against the pressing demands of a social movement like Black Lives Matter, the offense is even worse: “What they’re doing is as if your parents said ‘clean your bedroom,’ and instead of cleaning your bedroom, you clean the kitchen. This is not what anybody is asking for.” The removal has the unpleasant side effect of literally erasing the work of Black actors who otherwise aren’t present in the show. Martin also worries that Black fans could be blamed for a decision that wasn’t theirs: “I belong to a Golden Girls fan group on Facebook, and there were some white folks in there who were essentially like, ‘Black folks ruin everything.’ And people were saying, ‘Black folks never asked for this!’”

The simplistic, risk-averse logic on display in the Golden Girls incident has its roots in the dominant discourse around popular culture. Kristen Warner, an associate professor of journalism and creative media at the University of Alabama, has written about the shortcomings of colorblind casting and what she calls “plastic representation”—the practice of simply putting Black actors on screen and calling it a day without doing the work to back up the surface with substance. Warner sees plastic representation as the natural endpoint of a sometimes well-meaning emphasis on appearance as a metric of progress. It’s a school of thought that rewards the presence of a Black animated character, even if they’re voiced by a white actor. And on the flip side, it targets offensive images over the systems they’re mere evidence of.

“The thing about symbolic progress is, you can pick anything in any kind of context,” Warner says. “You can pull up an image out of context that could be Roger Sterling in blackface, or a character on 30 Rock in blackface. You can screenshot that and say, ‘This is evidence of a problem.’ As opposed to the larger questions of ‘Who’s in your writers’ room? Do you have racial and gender diversity? Do they get to contribute?’ In these screenshots or still images that we can capture, it’s easy to make blackface our scapegoat and neglect the bigger questions of what these shows didn’t do and what these shows missed.”

If identifying offensive material, or even removing it, doesn’t qualify as meaningful change, then our focus naturally turns to what does. In a moment calling for sweeping, radical action, the challenge becomes how to rise to the occasion without diluting its impact.

Removing old episodes or films from public view is quick, easy, and simple. It’s also entirely consistent not just with Hollywood’s approach to its own racism, but America’s. “Part of the particularly American issue with race and racism is that we never really deal with the problem. What we want to do is map it over and make it go away,” Martin says. “We never necessarily learn from history. We only try to bury it. When we try to bury it, these corpses of our racist history just keep coming back and coming back and coming back.”

Transparency and dialogue around the past is a start, and remains off the table for highly image-conscious companies and people. But preventing history from repeating itself, as it has so many times before, requires a proactive investment in the future. The past five years actually have seen a meaningful increase in people of color on screen as public pressure and profit motivations have combined to yield lucrative tentpoles like Black Panther and high-profile series like Insecure; in 2018, the percentage of characters from underrepresented groups rose from 29.3 percent in 2017 to 36.3 percent, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. But there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in decision-makers responsible for giving projects a green light, a recipe for Warner’s concept of plastic representation. “The first and foremost thing is to step back and say, ‘The first issue is not representation on the screen. It’s representation behind the camera,’” Sammond says. “These things begin to change when you actually address the deeply implicated power structure in entertainment today.” Otherwise, on-screen representation can work to conceal some inequities even as it addresses others.

Recounting his own experiences in TV writing, Madison says he’s seen some momentum in hiring, but not as much as he would like. “I have been lucky to work with some really great showrunners who’ve been white, who have diversity in mind and looked to make sure I wasn’t the only Black voice in the room. With that said, I’ve usually been one of only two Black voices in the room,” he says, laughing. “I would love to see more rooms that get more than their standard Black person, and then for the progressive rooms, more than their two standard Black people.” That shift, in turn, might help avoid making clumsy missteps in the first place rather than hastily overwriting them a few years down the line. Fey is still actively creating and staffing shows, including the upcoming Mr. Mayor on NBC. The rooms she assembles may not earn as much attention as retroactively tweaking her best-known show, but they could ultimately be far more consequential.

At a time when critics and protesters are also calling into question elements as integral to the TV canon as the police procedural, it’s tempting to ask whether Hollywood even has a role to play in fixing the mess it helped create. Given the inadequacy of its response so far, and its complicity before, maybe it’s best for the industry to butt out and leave the work to activists on the ground. But that implies a middle ground where culture can be strictly neutral in its approach to an unequal status quo, neither endorsing it nor pushing it forward. As over a century of racist art and untold influence goes to show, such middle ground doesn’t exist.

Seen a different way, however, culture’s power is a tool—one that can be used to show others’ humanity rather than erase it. “For years, TV has been the way that you reach people,” Madison says. “TV has always led the forefront, whether it’s Norman Lear shows dealing with race, or whether it’s the first televised abortion being on All My Children, Susan Lucci doing that story line. TV has always pushed things forward. TV is political, and the stories we choose to tell people influence the culture and influence the people who watch television and then make our politics. It changes hearts and it changes minds.”