Cultural context instead of cancellation
This month, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is bringing context into the spotlight as they “[look] at classic films through a contemporary lens” with their special programming series Reframed: Classic Films in the Rear View Mirror. They have selected 18 films from the 1920s through the 60s–including celebrated classics like Swing Time, Woman of the Year, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner–and through discussions with film scholars and the TCM hosts, the series aims to provide cultural context and investigate the elements from these films that feel problematic today.
As I previously wrote on this site, a lot of beloved classic films also contain objectionable content, whether they’re a little bit racist, casually misogynist, or simply reflect outmoded ideas about gender and relationships. Last year there was a minor uproar over the removal, then reinstatement with disclaimer, of Gone with the Wind on HBO Max. GWTW is a landmark film which features complex female characters, stunning cinematography, and an iconic score. It also contains harmful racial stereotypes and glamorizes a society dependent upon slavery. GWTW was the first film TCM ever aired and they have never stopped showing it, so it was an appropriate choice to kick-off Reframed.
Racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia are all part of film history. One misconception is that these attitudes were uncontroversial at the time, when in reality, there was often pushback from audiences, critics, even the filmmakers themselves. 1942’s Woman of the Year, a star vehicle written for Katharine Hepburn, centers on ambitious and progressive-minded journalist Tess, who struggles to conform to her new husband Sam’s idea of the perfect wife. The original ending had Tess retaining her status while finding an understanding with Sam; however, a revised ending imposed by the studio executives gave Tess a comeuppance. In the final scene she fumbles to use a simple toaster and practically begs to be a subservient housewife. That’s not the strong, capable character as envisioned that the screenwriters and Hepburn envisioned, but that’s what survives for audiences to see. However, knowing the creator’s intentions for Tess makes me evaluate the film differently.
In other cases, historical context can help a modern viewer to better understand the motivations driving the story. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) is a well-meaning but flawed presentation of an interracial relationship. A modern viewer might understand that interracial marriage was uncommon or even a taboo in 1967, without realizing that in 13 states it was also illegal. Knowing that fact puts specifics behind Spencer Tracy’s big speech about “you two and the problems you’re going to have.” The obstacles facing the central couple become clearer and the older characters’ concerns gain additional subtext.
In the current cultural climate–which in the past month has seen controversy erupt over a plastic potato’s honorific, six children’s books few people read, and the relative size of a cartoon bunny’s boobs–Reframed was bound to rile up some of TCM’s viewership. Among the numerous positive comments the series has received on social media, there have been cries to “leave movies alone!!!” and accusations of “cancel culture.” These knee-jerk reactions overlook the fact that by airing the films in question, uncut and commercial-free no less, Reframed is explicitly the opposite of cancellation. Commenters who say, “if you’re offended, then you don’t have to watch” also miss the point. Examining these classics and acknowledging their flaws functions to preserve these films, so that new audiences can continue to see them rather than dismiss them as relics of the past.
By the way, TCM has been doing this reframing thing for a while. The signature host segments, as well as the excellent short documentaries which air as interstitials, frequently draw attention to problematic elements in the scheduled films, such as the use of blackface in the otherwise inoffensive musical Swing Time. These segments are more engaging and effective than any written disclaimer and they demonstrate why TCM’s stewardship of classic film remains invaluable.
As a movie lover and longtime viewer of TCM, I hope that Reframed returns after this initial series. There’s no shortage of cinema classics to reexamine and interrogate. And if you’re afraid the discussion might challenge your opinion about an old movie, you don’t have to watch. But I hope that you do.