Get Rhett: ‘Woke Culture’ Can Be a Scarlett Letter

Whilst freedom of speech has been cast into doubt of late, it’s got me to think about woke culture, in hindsight of blackface scandals and the kerfuffle with Scarlett, Tara and Miss Melanie.

Lately, I have been having lots of interesting conversations with my colleagues in my community, engaging in discourse with students, educators and so on about decolonising the curriculum and education reform. We have spoken about educating by community and doing more outside of the system away from the red tape. HBO Max’s decision to take down Gone with the Wind in favour of having an edited version with a dialogue around slavery shook me to no end, since it changes Victor Fleming’s film completely.

Rhett Butler (Clarke Gable) and Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh)

My American colleagues tell me there has been a push to “cancel” Gone with the Wind for years, so this was inevitable. What this also tells me is that rather than commit to education reform, to at the very least teach people about American slavery, sharecropping, convict leasing, the Confederacy (and the racism), as depicted in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13TH, they would rather spoon-feed audiences information. Whilst I saw people calling it “censorship”, I adamantly disagree. Nazi book-burning was censorship. This is more sinister, historical revisionism… changing the context of the original film altogether by putting that dialogue around it, which just looks like liberal babysitting.

To those of you that don’t know, “cancel culture” is a medium of boycotting someone or something we disagree with for a past misdemanour or an opinion we don’t like.

In this case, it was not cancelling in its original meaning but cancelling by putting modern attitudes of “political correctness” on a film that’s 80 years old. Historical revisionism. It changes the film. What gets me is why they went for this film, when there are arguably worse films like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation (1915), readily available on YouTube — a film that led to the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, also a film that President Herbert Hoover at the time called “history with lightning” — which adds some perspective.

Birth of a Nation (1915)

The revisionism of Gone with the Wind is in the same year that Little Britain and The Mighty Boosh were taken off Netflix for their use of blackface, as well as calls for Ten Little Nigger Boys (now And Then There Were None) to be taken off Amazon, under fire by Black British activists. This text was first published in 1939, still when the British Empire was very much alive — before the Suez Crisis and Egyptian insurgency, and even before other independence movements in the Caribbean, India and the African continent. In their push to cancel Agatha Christie, after she’s long dead, and Amazon, there was no historical perspective. There are an awful lot of people trying to be woke with no forethought about history or the societies those books were written in.

Now, where many of us have all been witness to Black Lives Matter protests across the world, there is no evidence to prove that we are a post-racial society. Both society and academia cancelled historian David Starkey the other day for racist comments, and institutions turned their backs on him because it was convenient. Not because they thought it was the right thing to do. He has a history of racist inappropriate comments and the establishment enabled him… up until it was not their political interest.

However, reading Creative Writing as a Black student (where many modules were English Literature with many texts that are incredibly racist in their language), I think the reaction to the removal of Little Britain and other like-shows from streaming platforms is quite hasty. Rather than take this opportunity to have a national conversation on blackface minstrelsy (in the same year we tore down and removed statues to pioneers of the Slave Trade), we waste opportunities. Little Britain is still available on DVD mind you.

In our bid to try to be woke, I feel we are losing that English way of debate, learning and discussion — even if we believe the opposition to be flawed or fundamentally wrong.

I’m not saying platform racists, (Question Time), but when we have films and TV shows that have been out for years or even decades and only now we have problems, that’s when I raise eyebrows. To cancel media in that way is impulsive and rather unnecessary. Blackface was on UK BBC television until 1978 (within living memory for a lot of people) and it’s essentially racism through art. Blackface is as British as test match cricket. What blackface in these quite modern television programmes shows, is an indictment on an industry where Black and other minority writers and producers are still marginalised — voiceless — stateless — as I can say that if there were Black writers on Little Britain I would not be writing this article.I suppose it is rather ironic that some of my favourite films ever made could in fact be labelled racist. It was only the other day, I sat down to watch Roger Moore in Live and Let Die to see the casual racism that is evident in most James Bond films.

In this time where everyone is suddenly anti-racist, it’s telling to see how many of the films we watch are problematic, films that are loved in popular memory — from James Bond to the David Lean epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, Alec Guinness blacked up among the dunes.

I detest the notion to put a dialogue on slavery on Gone with the Wind because it takes responsibility away from education reform and communities to educate themselves. I would question that if we “revise” Gone with the Wind, does that mean John Wayne films still get a freepass, as he violently harasses indigenous peoples across the American West? I further question, that if we revise Gone with the Wind, why is there no push to revise other films of that era? They call that time the Golden Age of Hollywood, but that was really only if you were white, straight and male. Watching these films, you begin to see the racism, sexism and homophobia of that time they called Old Hollywood.

The Jazz Singer, 1927 (Getty Images)

Is there one rule for Scarlet O’Hara and another rule for James Bond or the first talking picture The Jazz Singer; or even the forgotten Judy Garland film Everybody Sing, where she herself blacks up? Call it The Mighty Boosh, call it the next Fred Astaire film; call it Breakfast at Tiffany’s — whilst a lot of media can be deemed as racist, I would not give that reason to cancel it, but a call to action to solve systemic issues within the film and television industry.

Watching as many films as I do, this is one of the main areas where I despise “wokeness.” It works… until it doesn’t work, activists wanting to get rid of things that could well be motivators for change under decolonisation movements, not cancelled in hindsight of so-called modern morality. I admit I am a huge fan of Gone with the Wind. Not for its racist tropes but for its significance as a piece of art and it was also the first film for which a Black actor won an Oscar — opening the gates for more Black actors.

The role Hattie McDaniel won that award for is not flattering but she acts the hell out of it breaking every rule, even within the stereotype — and she really makes it count, much to the sacrifice of her own career

The campaign against Amazon is impulsive, in an age where many are quick to anger without forethought, as we know many have selective memories about their national history. I would say HBO Max made a mistake doctoring Victor Fleming’s film. Both these texts are historical fingerprints to a time where many people thought different. In 1939, when both these texts came out, the people of that time were the children and grandchildren of those that fought in the US Civil War and people living in the eye of the British Empire.

The moment we start to doctor art is the moment we start fiddling with history, doing exactly the same things we are trying to undo in movements to decolonise education. Whilst we can have more Black and brown people on reading lists, we must also look at the texts that make us uncomfortable. The monsters of the 18th century that furthered racial thinking, people like Edward Long. A racial thinking lending its ear to issues we still see today.

Both Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel won Oscars for their work on Gone with the Wind (Getty Images)

Are we going to stop people watching James Bond or children watching pretty much every Disney animated film made between 1939 and 2000? I could make a chunky list of problematic films. Recently, Green Mile. Many of these films allow us a doorway into history. History is facts (sort of) and facts don’t care about your feelings. We may not like the jumped up stereotypes of blackface minstrel shows but history is amoral.Cancel culture is a metaphor for a country in denial of its past and present. As someone who grew up being called nigger; as someone who was monkey-chanted, I do not agree with cancel culture, particularly when it comes to media featuring unpleasantness on race. It allows people to forget how colonialism won the war on race, sorely evident in the texts on university degrees and the films we watch.

I feel in trying to be so anti-racist and doing the right thing, we have lost sight of history and and its repercussions we can see remnants of today — with no forethought about context, since if the British Empire was taught in schools (especially racial thinking), we would not even be having this conversation.

Seeing cancel culture work against artists breaks my heart, more so when the powers that be refuse to act — as the tumour of systemic racism is more damaging than the scarlett letter of “wokeness.”

Writer-Public Historian | Poet | Speaker: Race in arts/humanities, Black History, dyspraxia/autism | Work: | Neurodivergent

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Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Writer-Public Historian | Poet | Speaker: Race in arts/humanities, Black History, dyspraxia/autism | Work: | Neurodivergent

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