Gone With the Wind hasn’t been banned. Quite reasonably, it’s been temporarily removed
Caricatures of black people fuel a culture of abuse from boardrooms to classrooms
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in a publicity still for Gone with the Wind. Photograph: Silver Screen Collection/Getty
A great many people have let us know they “never liked Little Britain anyway”. Expect a bit more of that now Gone With the Wind has been temporarily removed from the HBO Max streaming service.
Well done. You disliked the sketch show even before its dubious embrace of blackface got it banished from Netflix and BBC iPlayer. It didn’t take a belated reconsideration of Gone With the Wind’s appalling racial politics for you to see through the slack story-telling and bald characterisation in the most financially successful film of all time.
Meanwhile, another crowd is tearing its hair out at the supposed advance of the PC police. Consider the online responses to Leigh Francis’s disavowal of his own blackface past. The artist still sometimes known as Keith Lemon used Instagram to apologise for his grotesque impersonations of black performers on Bo’ Selecta. “You weren’t being racist! Eddie Murphy has played white characters, the Wayans Brother’s [sic] have played white characters!” @superscuba83 pleaded. The tweet appeared above a poster for the Wayans family’s 2004 romp White Chicks. Many other Lemonistas mentioned that broad comedy.
The confirmation that so many still can’t grasp the moral distinction between blackface (a thing) and whiteface (barely a thing) offers justification for the revaluation of pop culture that has followed the protests against racism in the US. The comic caricatures of black people in Little Britain and Bo’ Selecta fuel a culture of abuse that extends from boardrooms down to classrooms. It provides teenage bullies with new insults for people of colour. There is no white minority worrying about how the powerful will weaponise the gags in White Chicks. How can you not know this, Scuba83?
And yet. Netflix’s subsequent decision to pull The League of Gentlemen and The Mighty Boosh does risk an edge into gesture politics. Rounding on the League’s Papa Lazarou — whose creepiness surely profits from our discomfort with minstrel tropes — is an easy way of indicating support. Netflix’s decision to place Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a fine documentary concerning racial injustice, on YouTube was a more useful move.
In other words, little about this debate is straightforward. Mistakes will be made. But the common suggestion that a Woke KGB is set to annihilate all culture that doesn’t conform to standards set by the Brooklyn-based Politburo really is baloney. We are going through a period of readjustment. Nobody is banning Gone With the Wind. One streaming service has decided to withdraw the film for a while before re-introducing it accompanied by “a discussion of its historical context”. HBO also promises a denouncement of “racist depictions” that unquestionably soften and pervert the horrors of slavery. That seems a reasonable move in the current circumstances. If you have four hours to kill you can still rent the thing on Google Play, Apple TV and competing services. Draw your own conclusions. There will be ways of seeing Little Britain. You may need to send off for a DVD (how 2011!), but the material will be available. Draw further conclusions.
The current convulsions have encouraged a welcome consideration of discriminatory and offensive attitudes in television and film. Some of these conversations have been going on since the Dark Ages. Despite Hattie McDaniel’s achievement as the first African-American Oscar winner, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was critical of Gone with the Wind on its release. Malcolm X later said he felt like “crawling under the rug” when he considered Butterfly McQueen’s role as the simple-minded Prissy. The HBO withdrawal merely continues a debate.
The Little Britain question is stranger. By 2003, when the series moved to television, culturally offensive entertainments such as The Black and White Minstrel Show had long been dismissed as relics of prehistory. One defence of such material is that “attitudes have changed”. But most of us thought these particular attitudes had already changed by the rise of the millennium. The moral is that, on balance of probabilities, we are currently watching (or reading or listening to) content that will embarrass us in just a few short years. Recent contrite responses from David Walliams and Matt Lucas, creators of Little Britain, suggest they wouldn’t argue with that diagnosis.
We don’t need to get all Fahrenheit 451 about such things. Netflix may have withdrawn those three series, but the Major’s notorious n-word tirade is still there in the relevant episode of Fawlty Towers. No doubt other dubious material is lurking elsewhere. One way forward is shown by Disney+. That streaming channel has appended content warnings addressing “outdated cultural depiction” before films such as Dumbo, Peter Pan and, yes, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Punters deserve to make up their own minds about culture from differently enlightened times. You know? Like the gaslit, smog-bound, horse-drawn era that was 2003.