As a kind of late-spring appetizer before the all-you-can-eat CGI buffet of summer blockbusters began, a few months back some unlucky moviegoers were treated to The Hustle. For those of you who have already forgotten, this was yet another tired retread of an Eighties movie everybody remembers from endless cable reruns (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, itself a remake of the long-forgotten 1964 Brando-Niven comedy Bedtime Story). Lacking in spirit or flair, The Hustle brought nothing new to the party besides gender-switch casting. Playing at the same time was the surprisingly sparkly romantic comedy Long Shot — which got a lot of mileage out of acknowledging and making a joke of the unlikeliness of its conceit: Secretary of State Charlize Theron falling for grubby Vice-ish writer Seth Rogen.
Both movies were a problem for Christian Toto, who penned a screed for The Hill decrying “the rise of political correctness” at the multiplex. For Toto, a quick calculation of A+B=15 got him from a throwaway gag in Long Shot where Rogen apologizes to Japan for using the atomic bomb to apoplexy over criticism of John Wayne and Kate Smith. After listing a few more potential victims of PC culture (Mel Brooks, James Bond), Toto gets to the main concern: If leftist culture warriors are not stopped, then “classic” movies like Gone with the Wind could be, well, gone with the wind.
A couple years back, a Memphis theater decided that, because of complaints, they were not going to show Gone with the Wind again. One would imagine conservatives would appreciate a small business not wanting to anger its customers. But by definition, conservatives tend not to like change. It’s in the name.
Reactionaries are panicked now about changes in the culture. This incorporates everything from female Ghostbusters to a female James Bond; witness the panic of Ben Shapiro, who bonded earlier in his career with Andrew Breitbart about the evils of Hollywood, over the latter development, using as his central argument Daniel Craig being “ripped beyond belief” in a way that a woman could apparently never be, ignoring Bond’s central appeal being his wiles and coolness, not ability to “beat the crap out of anyone.” No doubt somewhere on the Internet, somebody is very concerned about what it means that Natalie Portman is taking up Thor’s hammer. The desperate rearguard actions of Shapiro, Toto (whose website worries a lot about what “liberal” film critics and SJWs are up to), and others call to mind William F. Buckley’s line about standing athwart history, shouting Stop!
The determination that things need to stay the same generally assumes that something was better before the change. If one takes a lot of complaints about PC Hollywood to heart, then it stands to reason that the counter-argument says that it was better when movie heroes were almost uniformly white men. One could argue that Hollywood should just stop remaking hits of years gone by (the last Ghostbusters and The Hustle were bad, bad, very bad movies for reasons that had nothing to do with gender and everything to do with poor writing and a lack of inspiration). But just as grumbling about women and minority actors receiving greater representation is what conservatives do, grinding out variations on a theme is what Hollywood has always done. Remember, this is an industry that shot two different adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon before getting it right with the 1941 Bogart version.
Conservatives are not wrong to think that more one-time classics like Gone with the Wind are likely to attract controversy in the future as cultural mores shift. The National Review’s scrappy movie scold Kyle Smith worried that it would “disappear from sight.” But just as slippery-slope arguments against tearing down Confederate statues — the idea being that if one knocks down a Robert E. Lee edifice, then what’s to stop people from doing the same to other slaveowners like George Washington? — were frequently just smokescreens to hide the desire to leave celebrations of a white supremacist regime in place, arguments about whether or not to show certain old movies that now seem offensive frequently miss the point.
I first saw Gone with the Wind in the mid-1980s. Even in a decade rife with lamentable stereotyping, the movie’s celebration of the “Glorious Cause,” vilification of the Union, and its fantasy world of happy slaves (listed odiously in the credits as “servants,” implying an impossible level of agency) still felt like an ugly rewrite of what we had been taught in history class about the Civil War. The argument for showing Gone with the Wind would call it a pinnacle of the studio-system epic, calling out its glorious Technicolor cinematography and brilliant star turns by everyone from Clark Gable to Hattie McDaniel.
At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, the same can be argued about Triumph of the Will. Leni Riefenstahl’s record of the 1934 Nuremberg rally is a dazzling, virtuoso production whose technical mastery is still awesome to behold. The movie is also a key piece of Nazi propaganda. It is not hard to understand why somebody might think the latter point is more important to appreciate than the former. There are reasons why it and other movies produced by the Third Reich remain outlawed in Germany.
Nevertheless, Triumph of the Will is still shown, though mostly in academic settings as part of a course of study. Making a comparison to D.W. Griffith’s Klan rally of a movie, Birth of a Nation, Toto actually makes this argument about Gone with the Wind, wondering whether it couldn’t be shown along with “an informed dialogue.” This is a fair point. But calling censorship seems a stretch. It should be understandable that a theater might not want to present a long panel discussion about racism and representation as part of a summer series that tends to include things like Superman and The Wizard of Oz. Despite being technically sophisticated but also fairly insufferable, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Triumph of the Will are all still widely available for viewing. Many, many other movies from their time are not.
Also this argument can also at times feel too close to the “teach the controversy” tactic used by creationists to smuggle their teachings into curricula. Under the guise of ensuring that ugly old cultural stereotypes are kept alive — which seems to undergird much of the reactionary hand-wringing over political correctness and the movies, more so than any genuine concern about censorship—some conservatives can make their revanchist plea for everything to stay the same and present a picture of history as it never was.
For those who are genuinely worried that changing tastes could lead to artistic treasures being consigned to history’s dustbin, they would be advised to choose better movies.