by Darwin Porter
Censorship of films, plays, TV shows, and books, is rearing its ugly head again.
In a robust democracy, censorship is rare. As a pervasive part of a culture, it belongs more to totalitarian regimes as evidenced by what can be seen—or not—in China and Russia today. In the past, Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, was adept at censorship.
Since the birth of motion pictures, self-appointed American censors have aggressively tried to impose their values on their fellow citizens. In 1897, an early silent film provoked outrage by portraying a man passionately kissing his wife.
In 1907, Chicago became the first city in America to grant its chief of police the power to censor any film before it was released. That was followed with towns and cities across America appointing censorship boards.
Fearing Federal regulation, Hollywood in the 1930s imposed its own censorship board, stifling free expression until independent producers broke free in the 1960s.
Now, in 2020, new outcries of rage are being expressed as self-appointed “cultural commissars” want to decide what you can see or read.
The most notorious case calls for suppression of that enduring American classic from 1939, Margaret Mitchell’s film adaptation of Gone With the Wind.
Seen by millions upon millions, it’s the highest-grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation). Starring Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Clark Gable as Rhett Butler, the movie is attacked for its “romantic” depiction of the Antebellum South and its tolerance (or endorsement) of slavery.
Actually, it’s not much about slavery at all. It’s the saga of Scarlett, born into a bucolic life on a plantation, who is plunged into surviving a war that ravishes her land and family. Later, she charts a new life for herself as an independent woman forced into the business world during Reconstruction. It’s also the story of a woman torn between two lovers.
Hattie McDaniel was the first African American woman to win an Oscar for her memorable portrayal of Mammy. Some critics single her out as the smartest woman in the movie. She even bosses Scarlett around, holding her adolescent rebelliousness in check and continually prompting her to comport herself “like a lady.” During her heyday, in reference to her role, McDaniel told a reporter, “I’d rather play a maid than be a maid.”
In contrast, Butterfly McQueen told me that her role as the lazy, flighty slave, Prissy, “ruined my life. I had to play Prissy in film after film after that.” She immortalized herself with one of the most iconic lines ever uttered onscreen: “Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ babies.”
Early in the post-Covid censorship wars, HBO stopped its streaming distribution of Gone With the Wind, but later enabled it for streaming with a caveat: Jacqueline Stewart, an African American film historian and a host of Turner Classic Movies, will narrate a brief discussion, inserted as an introduction before each screening.
Spike Lee, the best known African American director, defended Gone With the Wind on the TV talk show, The View. He also inserted a sequence from that film into his movie, BlacKkKlansman.
“I think people should see this movie even though it’s openly racist,” Lee said.
More “radical,” Lee screened The Birth of a Nation, considered by some as D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece, to students in his film studies classes at New York University. Interpreted by many as the most racist film ever made, it depicts the KKK as a heroic force for the preservation of “American values” and the White Supremacist social order.
If these recent trends in American censorship prevail, virtually the entire output of films made during the first half of the 20th Century, including those with a theme of “John Wayne vs. The Indians” could be pulled from circulation.
But that won’t happen without some artistic objections: Author Judith Miller wrote, “The impulse to self-censor, however powerful in such politically polarized times, is deadly to any vibrant culture. No matter how seemingly compelling its justification, it must be resisted.”
Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, Too Many Damn Rainbows by celebrity author Darwin Porter and his co-author, Danforth Prince. It’s the never-before-told saga of the greatest mother-daughter act in show business. (Softcover with 734 pages and 200 photos.)
For more information about Porter’s biographies of Hollywood legends, click on www.BloodMoonProductions.com.
For information about how you can meet him for an overnight at his home in New York City, click on https://AirBnb.com/h/Magnolia-House or contact DanforthPrince@gmail.com.
Be sure to listen to Darwin’s discussions with Anita at regular intervals on Zoomertimes TV. Boomer Times: Bringing you better access to a familiar friend.