If “owning the libs by watching Gone With the Wind” appeared on your bingo card for the year, it just might be your lucky day. In one of the stranger developments to emerge from the past two weeks of social upheaval, the nascent streaming service HBO Max announced that it’s pulled the 1939 film from its library, following worldwide protests over the killing of George Floyd.
Since the streaming service removed Victor Fleming’s antebellum epic, it’s set off a dizzying culture war among some right-wingers who decry the move as censorship. In just a short time, it’s rocketed up the download and sales charts on Amazon and iTunes. As of Wednesday afternoon, it hit no. 1 on Amazon’s movies and TV sales and entered the top five on iTunes film downloads, alongside recent releases.
A representative for HBO told CNN that Gone With the Wind is “a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society.” They continued: “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.”
This comes after Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave John Ridley, who himself has a murky track record on racial messaging, penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times asking for the service to take it down, since it 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,” Ridley writes.
HBO clarifies that it won’t be down forever, with the service planning to restore it “with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions.” In this way, the move calls to mind both a studio or network pulling entertainment in the wake of a mass shooting or other traumatic national moment. But the best analogue might be Disney Plus adding disclaimers for films that may have aged poorly, or retroactively editing out a mermaid’s ass from Splash.
HBO Max removing a movie from streaming, something that happens in the hundreds at regularly monthly intervals, is not censorship. There are still numerous platforms to stream or purchase Gone With the Wind, excluding this particular service that debuted last month. There hasn’t been a state-sponsored order to strike it from the historical record. This arm of the discourse calls to mind the modern streaming consumer’s dependence on what a few platforms carry at a given time, and little curiosity beyond that.
That being said, there are legitimate gripes with the notion that viewers are unable to reckon with a text whose depictions don’t square with contemporary values. It’s a bit presumptuous to think that, 81 years after a film’s release, someone might need a handbook to grasp its troubling racial portrayals. While it’s unlikely that Gone With the Wind was rivaling streams on Space Force or The Lovebirds before any of its downloads in questionable faith, it’s perhaps even more ludicrous that the film would be a modern viewer’s first exposure to reprehensible art from a distant era. It’s best to wrestle and fight and grapple with a work, rather than have it suppressed or spoonfed. Multiple things can be true at the same time, and that’s enough to crack a few brains open.