Turner Classic Movies goes woke
Imagine my surprise last week when I clicked on the cable listing you'd posted for a primetime airing of Gone with the Wind and found, in place of the brief synopsis you customarily provide, a trigger warning that the film contained "imagery and depictions that may be offensive to modern audiences."
Just to be sure, I checked with my local cable provider to see if this was their doing and confirmed that the wording for the listing was indeed furnished by TCM. A quick web search later, I learned that this treatment was part of a month-long promotion TCM would be running for March, titled "Reframed: Classics in the Rearview Mirror," in which your on-air cast of 30- and 40-something woke sherpas would be revisiting a handful of Hollywood's greatest productions — from Breakfast at Tiffany's and My Fair Lady to Psycho and The Searchers — to retroactively enlighten us on why these classics, the films we've all come to love, are "problematic."
This comes on the heels of cancel culture's collective scalpings of Dr. Seuss, Mr. Potato Head, Pepé le Pew, and Mallard Fillmore as insidious avatars of violent insurrectionist, toxically masculine, militant white supremacist America — cultural touchstones every bit as dangerous to the nation's youth and delicate sensibilities as boxes of razor wire and fentanyl-laced Tootsie Rolls handed out by Pennywise on Halloween.
As we watch the world collectively clutch its faux pearls and feign outrage at books, films, characters, songs, and comic strips that were, less than a year ago, widely accepted in even the most liberal outposts of society, many of us felt we at least had one place we could turn to where we could tune out the madness and conflict and enjoy a couple of hours of respite in the darkened sanctuary of our living rooms. That was TCM.
The incisive commentaries your hosts routinely provide before and after movies have always offered fantastic context, history, and windows into behind-the-scenes drama. They were as enjoyable for what they included as for what they generally avoided: politics. Because while I always imagined it safe to surmise the party affiliations of most of your on-air talent (hint: most likely aren't bookmarking this website), they tended to be pretty careful about keeping things focused on the films, appealing to the widest possible audience, and leaving the editorializing at home. Up until now, that is — when your master class in classic film became an Oberlin or Sarah Lawrence course in critical film theory.
In checking the cable listings for the evening of that Gone with the Wind showing, it's funny that none of the other programs airing in that same time slot — gems including MTV's Floribama Shore, WE's Growing Up Hip Hop in Atlanta, and TLC's My 600-lb. Life, to say nothing of the bottomless trough of violent, crude, sexually exploitative garbage airing on the various movie channels — included the same trigger warning as Victor Fleming's masterpiece. And you know what? They should never have to.
Because in the end, we're all grown-ups, particularly the demographic tuning in to your channel — all of us sentient beings versed enough in history and culture to be able to contextualize and understand our nation's evolution over time, to be able to recognize the beauty, strength, and vulnerability of Hattie McDaniel's Oscar-winning performance against the backdrop both of our nation's most painful chapter and the age of segregation in which Gone with the Wind was filmed. As a country inherently given to introspection, we're not blind to our nation's past sins. To the contrary, we amplify them every day in a way that no other nation does. By the same token, we also see the greatness that this country represents around the world and the freedom and opportunity it offers that draws millions to our shores each year. Film has always been a remarkable medium for telling this story — the inspiring, the hysterical, the heartbreaking. And part of its beauty — and the beauty of TCM over the years — has been to let the audience judge its merits and shortcomings for themselves.
While we appreciate the perspectives your hosts offer, we don't need them to tell us that Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's was an inaccurate or insensitive portrayal of Asian-Americans; that Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates would somehow lead us to believe that all transgender people are homicidally unhinged; that Dan Duryea's various cads and Rex Harrison's Henry Higgins were a tacit endorsement of chauvinism; that Gone with the Wind was all but an exultation of slavery; or that somehow Sidney Poitier, one of the greatest treasures of any generation (of any background), was somehow unacceptable in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, because white audiences adored him and he wasn't "black enough."
To "reframe" these giants of cinema — many of which not only entertained, but moved the medium and culture inexorably forward — is to no longer allow them to stand on their own as artistic feats or to recognize the context in which they were created, but to reduce them by unfairly judging them against today's "evolved" woke standards.
It doesn't create a new job, cure a child's suffering, alleviate poverty, or bring us closer together. Instead, in this eerily Orwellian age, as with the tearing down of statues; the renaming of countless buildings and schools; and the overnight banning of books, commerce, and speech, it further divides and works to consign yet another piece of our national story to the memory hole. All we wanted to do was turn off the lights and enjoy a damn movie.
A Concerned Viewer
David Lazar is a lover of old movies and a higher ed communications professional in Boston.