Against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, HBO Max has pulled down the 1939 Hollywood classic Gone with the Wind. Victor Fleming’s screen rendering of Margaret Mitchell’s novel has for long been criticised for glorifying the antebellum South, perpetuating stereotypes of Black Americans and romanticising a fictional history. The pulldown was celebrated as a moral victory by many but others have rightly protested that it was just the easiest thing to do. Perhaps in reaction, HBO will bring it back on stream with an introduction by a prominent African-American scholar, contextualising it as a cultural product of an era when racism was regarded as normal. But the history lesson can be accused of preachifying and imposing on the patience of the public — popular cinema should be directly accessible, without heavy-handed mediation. It should be left to the viewer to engage with it, and to seek out the context, instead of force-feeding it to her.
Publishing, which is not a mass medium, has an easier life. Readers of a fresh translation of Greek literature would expect a preface explaining that Athenian society was free to think of higher things because slavery took away the pain. Those who don’t want to know would just flip forward.
Erase, contextualise or do nothing with the confidence that those who wish to, would discover the ethical context for themselves? Should the clamour of the righteous win? The question applies to all cultural products because semiotically, each is a text, whether it is the Malleus Maleficarum, Guernica or Gone with the Wind. Should Auschwitz have been turned into a museum to sensitise visitors or razed? And now, should the statue of a philanthropic slaver in Bristol have been thrown off the quay where his human cargoes made landfall, or retained, with a placard outlining an inhuman history — or without it? The English resolved the matter brilliantly. They tipped the statue into the drink, but claimed that it had tripped and fallen in.
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