Dario Martinelli. Would it be fair to suspend all films that fail to meet today’s moral standards?

Important | 2020-07-13
Dario Martinelli, professor at Kaunas University of Technology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities

Interviewed by Viktorija Lankauskaitė

The #blacklivesmatter movement has been marked by many initiatives in different spheres and entertainment is no exception. One of such was the suspension of Gone with the Wind by the HBO channel. The move has raised controversies and ongoing discussions about the legitimacy of intervening in the historical and cultural memory of our society, emphasizing moral limits that are often results of their time, and despicable only in a contemporary perspective.

Is it fair to judge the classical pieces by the standards of today? Should we censor everything that fails to meet those standards? Can we separate the artist from the citizen? These and other questions regarding the specific case of the classic directed by Victor Fleming were discussed with Prof. Dario Martinelli, Professor of History and Theory of Arts at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU), and author of various essays on cinema and audiovisuality.

What is your opinion about the recent censorship on Gone with the Wind?

I know it’s a detail, but I would start by saying that Gone with the wind has been suspended, not censored. Nobody touched the film, not even to cut that irritating scene that “justifies” the KKK or other unmistakably racist delights. Simply HBO (and only HBO) wanted to give a signal, in this context, that would carry a symbolic value. As if to say “dear viewers, for a while we will not show you this film, because it seems not very delicate in relation to what is going on these days, and because perhaps in doing so the film and its themes will become an opportunity for reflection”. And indeed they have become so, because you and I, and many others, are talking about it. In one way or another, we are forced to discuss the problem of racism.

Moreover, it has already been announced that HBO will soon re-release the movie, but this time there will be an introduction to contextualize it historically – which I think is nice, and should be done to more movies of this kind.

Even if it is a suspension, there is fear of such situations becoming a trend, as in the case of statues of historical figures. Do you think similar cases might follow?

I honestly don’t think so. The value of this suspension, I repeat, is symbolic: I do not see it at all as an attempt to initiate an inquisition in Fahrenheit 451 style. Gone with the wind is not suspended because it is hypocritically considered the only racist film around (do we really think that HBO would not know?): it is suspended because, among the films with racist contents, it is an ultra-famous case that allows to raise the issue more effectively than less famous films.

It is a synecdoche. The moral virtue of the gesture lies precisely in the fact that it is not the beginning of an inquisition against the expressive freedom of art.

Those who maintain that if you target Gone with the Wind, argue that then you have to do the same with all the other racist films. And there are some where the racist message is definitely stronger than in Fleming’s film. What do you think about that?

Yes, and that is called “Whataboutism” and personally, it does not seem to me a valid argument. I think it is important not to give in to the temptation of saying “and what about Griffith? What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s? What about the Indiana Jones saga?”, and to think that the only way to be consistent is to practice the “all or nothing” sport.

In practice, it would be like saying that we should not incarcerate any criminal because we have not arrested all those in circulation, so it is unfair to put only a few of them inside. That’s not the smartest of arguments, frankly.

There are already those who attack directors such as Quentin Tarantino, so the phenomenon might be actually spreading out – don’t you think?

I too would hope that this doesn’t become a witch hunt. Specifically, targeting someone like Tarantino seems to me pretty unfair. Tarantino has made political incorrectness his actual artistic paradigm, but everything is done with obvious irony and with a postmodern taste that refers to the B-movies of the 1960s and 1970s. “Nigger” is not the sole naughty word that we hear in Tarantino’s films. Besides, there is Django Unchained, which in my opinion is one of the most powerful anti-racist films in the history of American cinema. I mean it.

Finally, let’s go back to what I said before: the gesture must be symbolical. If it becomes an inquisition, we actually get a boomerang effect. But it is about time that we start doing a bit of revisionism, as it has been done with westerns and their representation of Native Americans, as we are trying to do it with the representation of women, and as it happens in many post-colonialist movies. It is fair, in my opinion, that black people got tired of seeing Jim Crow and Uncle Tom in the movies all the time. If the attack to Tarantino seems to me unfair, there are dozens of other films that we can happily live without.

We must accept the idea that certain films belong to the same semantic field as the propaganda ones during dictatorships. These may not be “government” propaganda, but they remain powerful vehicles of violent and discriminatory ideas, conveyed as “normal order of things”. We mustn’t exaggerate, sure, but a little revisionism would not hurt.

But don’t you find that, regardless of blameworthy and less blameworthy cases, such decisions still remain very radical and something that might even remind of fascism?

Well, on fascism and anti-fascism, we should perhaps open a separate chapter because it is a bit beyond the merit of this discussion. But, briefly, I think it is important to say that actions do not all have the same moral status. The rhetoric of “even the partisans killed” is deceiving because it tries to put the actions of the oppressor who started, with those of the oppressed who reacted on the same level. We know it in Italy with the so-called “Resistenza” against Fascism, and you know it here very well with the partisans who fought against the Soviets. When the oppressed does the same thing (let’s say, a murder) in response to the oppressor, the moral status is completely different.

The same applies to an anti-racist “censorship” compared to a racist one. Not showing Gone with the Wind for a while doesn’t have the same moral status as not showing that the Wilkes’ and the O’Hara’s whipped their slaves, abused their women, lynched anyone who vaguely tried to rebel, and instead show them as civilized and cultivated gentlemen whose only fault is to underestimate the Yankees.

The other recurring argument is that certain episodes and certain characters are reflections and results of their time and that it is not fair to judge them by today’s standards. Do you agree?

In general, I agree. But let us be careful. When it came out in theatres, and contrary to what is being said these days, Gone with the Wind did cause controversy over its racist content – it did, all right! It is not correct to think that it was a “result of its time”. It was, already then, quite backwards, at least for some people, who in fact criticized the film. There were demonstrations, intellectuals’ opinions, signals of various kinds.

Hattie McDaniel was the first African American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy: special permission had to be required in order to let her into the ceremony, which was still segregated, and in any case, she was not allowed to sit at the table with Clark Gable and the others. In addition, she was unable to attend the premiere of the film because she was not allowed to enter. And, in turn, she was criticized by her community for being “servant of the white power”.

In short: it wasn’t that people hadn’t noticed, back then, that the film was racist. This story of today’s yardstick and yesterday’s yardstick is not applicable here. It also applies to quite a few of those statues, incidentally.

And let’s not forget that the film is also blatantly sexist, and among other things, it represents marital rape in a positive key.

In that sense, I once more applaud to the fact that when it will be re-released, Gone with the Wind will feature an introduction that will explain the movie’s contents, and what is wrong about them.

To many, however, the film remains unworthy of certain accusations. In the end, it is a very soft and romanticized portrait of a tragic period in American history. What do you think about it?

You know, I actually think that this is exactly the most controversial point, here. To me, Gone with the Wind is a very soft portrayal of that era, those events and those relationships. The handsome and civilized white southerners, the aforementioned scene that alludes to the KKK (but as a form of justice, of course, because ‘big black gorilla to have assaulted poor innocent white girl’!), The fact that the slaves are never shown ‘suffering’ for their condition, but in good shape and cooperative (never a whip, never a humiliation…), etc., up to the point that blacks are given much more space in the story than they were given in reality – think of the characters of Prissy or Mammy. In fact, African Americans are insulted twice, in this film: first, by making them hypocritically seem much more “insiders” of the white community, and second by still depicting them as wild, uncivilized, clumsy and in general unpleasant (think of the tone in which they speak, so cacophonic, strident …).

With all due respect for the good film that it is, the representations offered in Gone with the Wind are vulgar portrayals in Minstrel Show style. And the “natural order” that is traced here sees the white male southerners at the top, the male northerners afterwards (always “men”, but also a little dumb, as again in the KKK scene), the subordinate and often capricious white women in the third place (starting with the hysterical Scarlett), and finally blacks, at the very bottom. All presented in a sentimental and edulcorated sauce. In the end, the problem for me is mainly this.

From the way you talk about it, you don’t seem to like the movie at all.

No. On the contrary. Except that my opinion on the film as such is irrelevant, here. However, if you ask me, I can tell you that in general, from a filmological point of view, Gone with the Wind is an important and remarkable movie. If anything, one can move the criticism that it has not aged very well, in the sense that direction, montage and other elements seem very typical of the time, without having taken on the connotations of the “classic” that make a film timeless. Say, a film from the same period by Hitchcock, Capra or Welles does not have these limitations.

On the other hand, Gone with the Wind has the merit of having introduced a narrative approach that brought the filmic art very close to the literary one, and that must be acknowledged. However, that this is one of the most Oscar-winning films in history seems excessive to me. If one thinks that Citizen Kane got only one, well…

To conclude, at KTU you teach “History of Audiovisual Arts” and “Cinema Media”, among other things. How do you approach, with your students, such a delicate topic like this film, its contextualization and its themes?

Typically, with my students, the painful moment comes when we talk about montage. At that point, I can’t help telling them that Birth of a Nation is the first modern montage masterpiece and that Griffith defines its main stylistic features.

But I also tell them that Griffith was a hateful racist, without any doubt – and even by the standards of the time. That is so true that the film was bitterly criticized for its contents, and that he felt compelled to make a film immediately afterwards, Intolerance, to show that he, after all, was not the racist that he was. The attempt, needless to say, was pathetic, and in fact, nobody ever remembers that film.

So, what I do is, I make sure that at least three issues are dealt with, in that lesson: one, explaining montage in Birth of a Nation; two, dealing with the theme of racism in cinema, and finally, three, discussing the moral legitimacy to separate a work of art from its contents, and the artist from the citizen. The debate is open and I do not suggest anyone how to solve this dilemma: however, we all talk about it together, and this allows us not to treat the problem superficially, but to make sure that our opinions, whichever they are, are not “empty”, but generated in a critical manner.

Thank you.