EXCLUSIVE: For Ben Mankiewicz, now is the right time to revisit Hollywood’s most controversial classics.
On March 3, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) announced they were launching a new series titled “Reframed Classics,” which promises wide-ranging discussions about 18 culturally significant films from the 1920s through the 1960s that also have problematic aspects.
Some of the films expected to be explored include 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which includes Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr. Yunioshi, as well as 1936’s “Swing Time” where Fred Astaire can be seen doing a dance routine in blackface.
“We’re doing this series because we’re in the middle of a nation-wide conversation about race, sexism, sexual orientation and gender,” Mankiewicz told Fox News.
“For more than a hundred years, movies have played a critical role in shaping how we see each other,” he shared. “Mostly, the movies have enhanced our understanding of the human condition, but in other cases, they’ve reinforced deeply negative stereotypes that have contributed to an uneven playing field.”
The series kicked off with 1939’s “Gone with the Wind.” In June 2020, HBO Max temporarily removed the film from its streaming library in order to add historical context. The epic drama has been long criticized for romanticizing slavery, as well as the Civil War-era South.
At the time of HBO Max’s decision, protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death prompted entertainment companies to reevaluate the appropriateness of both current and past productions.
Filmmaker John Ridley urged WarnerMedia to take down “Gone with the Wind,” arguing that it “romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings.”
In response, WarnerMedia, which owns HBO Max, called “Gone with the Wind” “a product of its time” that depicts racial prejudices.
“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,” said an HBO Max spokesman in a statement.
TCM, which celebrates classic films of various eras, has been faced with the complicated reality that many of Hollywood’s most celebrated movies are also plagued with stereotypes. Amid last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, the channel’s programmers and hosts were eager to do something about it.
“For 27 years, TCM has been bringing classic movies to modern audiences, putting the films in their proper cultural and historical context,” said Mankiewicz. “As the guardians of these movies, we think it’s critical that they are part of this national conversation because as we move forward, they can play a vital role in helping us grow together.”
Jacqueline Stewart, a University of Chicago professor who became the channel’s first African American host in 2019, will participate in many of the discussions. She has spent her career studying classic films, particularly those in the silent era, and Black audiences.
“We know millions of people love these films,” Stewart told The Associated Press on Tuesday. “We’re not saying this is how you should feel about ‘Psycho’ or this is how you should feel about ‘Gone with the Wind.’ We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to ‘I love this movie. I hate this movie.’ There’s so much space in between.”
Today, companies have taken to adding disclaimers before shows and films depicting outdated or stereotypical characters and themes. Some films have even been made unavailable. Disney has said its 1946 film “Song of the South” will never be on Disney+.
Stewart said she hopes “Reframed Classics” will encourage both longtime classic movie fans and curious viewers alike to have discussions, rather than dismissing or canceling a problematic film altogether.
“I think there’s something to be learned from any work of art,” said Stewart. “They’re all historical artifacts that tell us a lot about the industry in which they were made, the cultures that they were speaking to.”
“Reframed Classics” airs Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET on TCM. The Associated Press contributed to this report.