“Remember that when GWTW [Gone With the Wind] was made, segregation was still the law in the South and the reality in the North. The Klu Klux Klan was written out of one scene for fear of giving offense to elected officials who belonged to it. The movie comes from a world with values and assumptions fundamentally different from our own – and yet, of course, so does all great classic fiction, including Homer and Shakespeare. A politically correct GWTW would not be worth making, and might largely be a lie.”
This quote is from a review on Gone With the Wind by Roger Ebert, a film critic and reviewer. It caught my attention because I had just written a short post about my impressions of The Iliad (see my post, here) and I talked about how all I could really think about was what a rotten deal the women were getting. Of course, as Roger Ebert points out, The Iliad is a work of its time and if it were written today, then the affect of the story would probably be highly diluted, because it’s not a story about women. It’s about the Greek heroes who lay siege to Troy.
Literature and movies are windows into the time of their creation, of that time’s values. When we correct racism, sexism, intolerance, and inaccuracies, we are suddenly reflecting our own values backwards into the past and revealing only ourselves. Also, if we were to assume that only something that is perfectly politically correct is worthy of attention, then chances are everything we create today will be forgotten by our descendants.
But I’ve always wondered where the line is between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. Not many consider a Nazis propaganda film an acceptable form of entertainment, even if it could be considered well done. I don’t know anything about Nazi art, accept that it is generally disparaged; but art that is propaganda is not automatically bad art. The Aeneid, written by Virgil, is pretty non-subtle propaganda for Caesar Augustus, building him up as a great ruler whose coming was prophesied at the very founding of Rome.
When Gone With the Wind was being made, many African-Americans protested the adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s book into a movie because of the racism (there is even more in the book than in the movie). The Birth of a Nation (1915) is still considered one of the finest American films, and it struck me as more racist than Gone With the Wind. Sergei Eisenstein, a much admired, cutting-edge Russian director in the Soviet Union, used his films to further his vision of communism (ironically, and sadly, he had many run-ins with authority for not professing the correct form of communism). The ideology of communism has the unique feature of being less offensive than Nazism, but, in practice, equally destructive of human life.
I guess I don’t know where the line is. I enjoy the movie Gone With the Wind more than I enjoy The Iliad, so I am more willing to accept that it is a productive of its times. And I think, regarding that line, that it is important to differentiate between what is merely a product of its times and what is overt propaganda – and then we have to evaluate how greatly we like or dislike the view being propagated. Caesar Augustus apologia does not seem quite as pernicious as Aryan racism.
It is important, however, never to get so used to something, whether it is political incorrectness or propaganda, that you cease to notice or evaluate it.