Cancel culture on the silver screen

Meta Mazaj says framing films within context is more valuable than erasure and disclaimers.

Professor in front of a bookshelf filled with books
Meta Mazaj is a senior lecturer in cinema studies at Penn. (Image: Taja Mazaj)

Iconic films woven into our nation’s culture are being scrutinized in light of the Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice. 

HBO MAX introduced “Gone With the Wind” into its streaming service in June at the same time as streets throughout the nation were filling with protesters. Responding to outraged viewers, HBO pulled the film from its streaming service, and two weeks later restored it with a video introduction by African American film scholar Jacqueline Stewart and a separately available 2019 panel discussion, “The Complicated Legacy of ‘Gone With the Wind,’” moderated by Penn faculty Donald Bogle

Still the highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation, the 1939 blockbuster has been criticized for racial stereotypes and romanticizing slavery but has continued to shape mainstream understanding of the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. In a more hasty move, a British streaming service, Sky, added an “outdated attitudes” disclaimer to several films, including “Jungle Book,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and “Aladdin.”

Two people dressed in clothing from the early 20th century at a desk in an office.
Meta Mazaj includes the 1920 film “Within Our Gates” in her courses as a counter narrative to the famous 1915 film “Birth of a Nation.” 

Films are being reexamined in light of racially insensitive content, from “The Birth of a Nation,” a 1915 film that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan, to relatively recent films like “The Help,” about the experiences of Black maids in 1960s Mississippi.

Meta Mazaj, senior lecturer in cinema and media studies at Penn, warns against removing these films, or simply adding labels or disclaimers. She says adding context is important, as well as bolstering the profile and visibility of Black content and the content of other underrepresented minorities who present diverse points of view. 

Penn Today spoke with Mazaj, whose research focuses on global cinema, about today’s reexamination of films. 

What do you think about disclaimers or content labels as a gesture towards better inclusion and diversity?

I think disclaimers and content labels may be a well-intentioned but are a superficial gesture. There are two main problems with it. First is a problematic understanding of history as something in the past, as a closed chapter. A ‘outdated attitudes’ label attached to films like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ films that are a significant part of our film history and popular memory, carries an assumption that these films are merely a product of their times. That they were made in a distant past, when things were different, when attitudes were different, and this is not how we do or see things anymore. This view treats history as a linear progression, as something that we have evolved from: ‘We have a racist past, things were horrible, but we’ve come so far today!’ I think this is a very misguided and downright dangerous attitude.

The current moment shows us very clearly that the racist past this country and its institutions were built on is not just part of American history, and the history of American cinema, but it continues in our present. It shows us a profound continuity between narratives and worldview of old and outdated’ films like ‘Gone With the Wind,’ and recently produced films like ‘The Help’ and ‘Green Book,’ which are eagerly embraced and awarded. These recent narratives may be more politically correct, open minded, and seemingly inclusive of minority perspectives, but they in fact perpetuate the same stereotypes, prejudices, and assumptions.

They speak from a worldview that is still white-centered. And, as in ‘Green Book,’ the lived reality of systemic racism is usually reduced to relationships between individuals that can presumably heal everything, which makes for a feel-good ending. I think in order to understand our present moment, we have to be honest and ruthlessly critical about our past but also understand its connection to the present. This means engaging with it, being knowledgeable about it, and owning up to it, not erasing, cleansing, or dismissing it as ‘outdated’ and therefore irrelevant.

The second problem with disclaimers and content labels is that they tend to be shallow, token gestures. They go a long way in appeasing our guilty white liberal consciousness but do nothing to address structural issues of racial and other types of inequality. Hollywood trying to cleanse itself in this way is not unlike the performance posture of the big corporations that have eagerly embraced the Black Lives Matter slogan and donated to the protest movement while they continue inequitable and racist practices in hiring, pay, policy, and workplace culture.

You agree the films should be put into context. What do you think is a good approach?

Yes, historical context is very important. The way HBO handled ‘Gone With the Wind’ required labor and effort, but it was done thoughtfully. It’s certainly better than pressing a delete button or slapping a warning label on it. Better still than these correctives, I think, is to center Black content and programming. About a month ago, Netflix put together a ‘Black Lives Matter’ collection of 60 or so films and series and put it center stage in their library. They were in a good position to do so because for some years now they’ve nurtured the connection to Black audiences, hired a critical mass of Black executives and creators, and have built a robust and diverse library of Black content. Many other services, along with Hollywood, are scrambling instead to catch up with this by suggesting lists along the lines of ‘5 Anti-Racist Films You Should See’ to make you feel correctly caught up with this cultural moment. Black voices and narratives should not serve as a mere didactic corrective; they need to be an integral and visible part of the wider picture, on their own terms and merits.

How do you use ‘problematic’ films in your courses at Penn? 

I try to be as thorough as possible with contextualization, not just with a specific text but zooming out to a wider, comparative picture. Let’s take the most problematic example, which comes up in a class on the early history of cinema, W.D. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation.’ We examine it alongside Oscar Micheaux’s ‘Within Our Gates.’ But the objective is not just to analyze the texts, or to see Micheaux’s film as a mere example of a counter-narrative and a necessary corrective to Griffith’s twisted, white supremacy-based vision of history. It is to understand the wider institutional and cultural forces that elevated the status of one to a cinematic masterpiece and effectively erased, silenced the other for half a century. Micheaux’s film was lost for decades until a single print was rediscovered in Spain in the 1970s. Putting center stage the diversity of voices, both dominant and marginal, and then understanding their relative visibility or invisibility, the unequal power dynamic underlying their production, reception and circulation—which has nothing to do with quality or artistic merit of films—is what I consider important to get across.

Your classes emphasize global perspective on cinema. How do you see the conversation around these issues playing out globally? 

It is truly amazing to see that Black Lives Matter has become a global rallying cry for racial justice. For many countries, it means a reckoning with their own history of colonization and oppression of minorities, all of which is tied to current inequities. This moment really highlights an issue that has been at the core of how I teach world cinema. It comes back to the politics of visibility and unequal power relationships. It’s not just about uncovering marginalized and repressed images but addressing larger structural issues. Why is Hollywood still a dominant voice on the world market, even though it constitutes only a small percentage of world film production? Why have most of us not seen a single Nigerian film, even though Nollywood is the second largest film industry? Diversity here is not so much about enlarging the world you are looking at where you see more but from your perspective. It is about displacing your perspective, seeing the world from someone else’s point of view.