How Should We Handle Controversial Classics?


(All images used are in the public domain)

Brigham Larson

The television world was set ablaze this past month when legendary British comedian John Cleese announced that he, alongside his daughter Camilla, would be writing and starring in a reboot of his classic BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers, set to be produced by The Princess Bride director Rob Reiner. The series, which ran from 1975 to 1979 and follows Cleese as a bad-tempered and cynical hotel manager, is frequently counted among the greatest sitcoms in history and holds a rare 100% rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes. There are few shows in TV history that can claim to have had as much influence as it has.

Reactions to the news have predictably been across the board, with some welcoming the show’s return and some trashing it. Some rightfully worry that extending the run of a “perfect” 12-episode series will cheapen the original. But even more prevalent is the concern that today’s TV audiences will not be receptive to the series, in spite of its classic status.

The original Fawlty Towers has gained notoriety in recent years for the unrelenting bluntness of its satire, including poking fun at upper-class British bigotry by showing a white character using multiple racial slurs, including the N-word, in a racist rant. Further instances of problematic behavior are depicted throughout the series. These moments have led to much online and real-world discourse on if such jokes are appropriate, and some have been edited out of the series in recent reruns. Most notably in 2020, following the widespread George Floyd protests, the episode in which the rant features, “The Germans,” was pulled from UKTV’s streaming service.

This troubling question is not just limited to the world of British sitcoms. It is something that we have had to reckon with throughout all forms of art. I recall earlier in this school year when a group of fellow students in my English class, in response to a question posed by the teacher, stated that there should be on option to “opt out” of reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The novel, for those few unaware, contains a plethora of racial slurs sprinkled throughout, and is considered one of the most controversial pieces of literature in American history. Certainly, viewing Twain’s novel through a modern lens is an eye-opening and occasionally uncomfortable experience. At first glance, given the 219-some uses of the N-word, it would make sense to ban it in the more sensitive world of today.

That is not so. Context is everything, in this case. The novel is a well-known classic of anti-racist literature, a story about a boy raised in a highly racist environment learning that those he has been taught are less than human are, in fact, just as human as he is. The frequent use of the word is meant to shock the reader, making them ponder the inhumanity that would cause the word to be so frequent in the characters’ vocabulary, especially in Huck, a young child. Censored versions of the novel have existed for over a long time now, though they lack the original’s satirical bite, and make it less thought-provoking. To rob Huckleberry Finn of its controversy is to rob it of its beauty.

Artists and writers have a duty to say something to those who are consuming their art. This implies both great power and great responsibility. Certainly, as Huckleberry Finn demonstrates, words should have the power to make people uncomfortable because discomfort is what creates change. Without the ability to be disquieted by a great written work, literature loses all meaning. Words should be handled carefully, obviously, but the cure for misuse of words is proper use, not no use. It is the right of an artist to create honestly, and they should not fear censorship so long as their words are wielded with care, and pointed where they should be pointed. In today’s gleefully censorious culture, it’s important that we look past the words and take a look at the bigger picture. Huck Finn is not a racist book. In fact, it’s just about the furthest thing from it.

On the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are the things that depict without condemning. Take, for example, two of the most important pieces of American film history: The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Without these two films, there would be no modern film industry. The Birth of a Nation invented many of the filmmaking techniques we see today, such as closeups, fadeouts, creative use of extras, and intercutting in intense sequences. It is also a shockingly racist piece of work packed to the brim with blackface, racial stereotypes, and general all-around bigotry. The heroes of its second act are members of infamous terrorist group the Ku Klux Klan, and their victory is the lynching of a Black man (portrayed, of course, in blackface). In fact, the film is credited with reviving the Ku Klux Klan, which had been long dormant by the time the film was released, and has been used as a recruitment film for the Klan even in recent years.

Likewise, Gone with the Wind, which is still the highest-grossing film of all time if adjusted for inflation, is a classic of American filmmaking that also demonstrates deeply racist roots. The blackface is thankfully absent from this film, though that’s not saying much. The film seems to believe the false notion of “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy,” which states that the South’s secession and the subsequent Civil War was not about slavery, but rather states’ rights. Furthermore, the characters are deeply problematic in their writing and portrayals. Even its Black characters, such as Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy (a role that won her the first Academy Award for a Black performer), demonstrate extremely stereotypical behaviors. On top of all of that, the film lays out its lies as if they were truth, deceptively presenting slavery as if it were a noble institution based on mutual respect between slaveowners and slaves.

To watch either of these films is a fascinating experience, one that is sure to make any viewer recoil. Revered film critic Roger Ebert once wrote of The Birth of a Nation in his “Great Movies” essay on the film, “To watch [director D.W. Griffith’s] work is like being witness to the beginning of melody,” while acknowledging that much of the film is “racist in the ham-handed way of an old minstrel show or a vile comic pamphlet.” That roughly sums up the general American opinion of the film ever since the Civil Rights Movement reframed it in the 1960s. There are still those who differ from public opinion, however. A scroll through the Google reviews section reveals a fascinatingly wide range of opinions on this film. There are those who acknowledge its technical marvels and condemn its morals, those who believe that it is a racist act in and of itself to say anything positive about the film, five-star reviews praising Klan ideologies and spouting the most vile racism an Internet user can hope to see, and someone who “had a hard time siding with the good guys.”

I have personally not seen The Birth of a Nation, but I have seen Gone with the Wind, and the same issue applies there. Gone with the Wind is a truly spectacular film, a brilliant four hours that any enjoyer of cinema should see at least once in their lifetime. The raw, committed performances, the emotion and the wit of the dialogue, the majesty of the cinematography, those are things that have been untarnished by age. The same cannot be said for the rest of the film. It is a truly racist film, racist enough to make one cringe deeply throughout its runtime.

Works like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, which propagate horrible ideas alongside their entertainment, are particularly troubling when called into question given their iconic status. During and after the 2020 police brutality protests, such works came under closer scrutiny than ever, with some describing the reconsideration of this art as a “reckoning” for classic films that contain content that, once taken in stride, is now largely frowned upon. Notably, HBO removed Gone with the Wind from their HBO Max service in response to an op-ed by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley. This action caused DVD and Blu-Ray sales of the film on Amazon to skyrocket, with many commenters expressing their adoration of the film and their disdain for the “woke police.”

Warner Bros. later reinstated the film to their service, along with a video introduction explaining the context of the film. That, in my view, is the right idea. Censorship does nobody any good, especially when it comes to a classic film. I believe Gone with the Wind to be a true five-star film deserving of every single accolade it has received. I also acknowledge that it demonstrates deep roots of racist attitudes and warrants every ounce of criticism it has received. The two can co-exist, and recognizing that allows us to have greater conversations about art that may be considered problematic. As Roger Ebert also wrote of The Birth of a Nation, “[…] it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

Currently, no major streaming services are streaming The Birth of a Nation. It is, however, available on the free library streaming platform Kanopy, which describes it as what it is: a highly influential film that is also evil. Art should be contextualized, not censored. We shouldn’t pretend that these films never existed. We should make them freely available to watch, alongside conversations about why these are wrong (the film, being in the public domain, can also be seen on YouTube, Vimeo, and Wikipedia).

Then, on this spectrum of offensiveness, there lies the works in the middle, the things like Fawlty Towers and 30 Rock that can honestly be debated on whether or not they should be considered truly racially offensive. The situation with Fawlty Towers has already been described. But even a more modern work, such as the NBC sitcom 30 Rock (a personal favorite series of mine), isn’t immune from criticism. In 2020, four episodes of the series were removed from streaming due to use of blackface, at the behest of series creator and acclaimed comedian Tina Fey. “I understand now that ‘intent’ is not a free pass for white people to use these images. I apologize for [the] pain they have caused,” she said. My first viewing of the series was done on Amazon Prime, where, sure enough, the episodes in question were no longer available. Thanks to my parents’ DVD set of the show, however, I watched the first of these deleted episodes, “Believe in the Stars.” In the episode, two characters, a black man and a white woman, compete to determine who has the harder life. The character of Jenna Maroney (the white woman in question) dresses up as a black man, in full blackface. In typical sitcom fashion, hijinks ensue. The episode is a complicated thing to discuss. Jenna’s use of blackface is presented as clearly wrong within the episode, both from the shocked reaction by her co-workers and the general context of Jenna’s character being depicted as an ignorant idiot.

In the case of both 30 Rock and Fawlty Towers, the use of outdated racial terms and imagery is presented as wrong, ignorant, and racist, but it drags up the question of the extent to which such things are condemned in the art itself. When one reads Huckleberry Finn, it’s obvious that the novel is condemning the racist attitudes of the time and making an argument for racist Americans to set aside their biases and view those marginalized as fellow human beings. When one watches these shows, one can’t help but wonder how much of it is in the name of condemnation and how much of it is in the name of making the audience laugh.

Indeed, both scenes, blatantly and intentionally offensive as they are, provoked a chuckle out of me. The humor of the Fawlty Towers scene lies in the fact that the Major rejects his girlfriend’s use of the N-word to describe a certain group of people, making it seem as if he is becoming more racially sensitive, only to correct her with another slur. Similarly, the humor of the 30 Rock scene lies in the sheer offensive absurdity of the situation presented. Both of these shows create laughter out of how insensitive such things are. As such, one can certainly argue for or against the use of these controversial elements and have completely valid perspectives. Humor, after all, is known to be one of the most effective ways to tackle something controversial. Just ask Charlie Chaplin, whose masterful 1940 dramedy film The Great Dictator skewered Hitler and his atrocities using slapstick while the tyrant was still coming to power. Or Stanley Kubrick, whose classic (and positively spectacular) 1964 satire Dr. Strangelove presented Cold War-era nuclear anxiety as a massive governmental farce. To laugh at pain is to balance out sadness and negativity with a brighter side. On the other hand, as Fey herself pointed out, “intent” may not be a good enough reason for white creators to dredge up a long and painful history of oppression just to draw a giggle from the audience.

Whether or not these things are acceptable is a difficult question. But the current, and in my view, more immediately pressing matter is how we are to handle these things. And in the end, I think there is only one answer: let the whole world see them. Removing television episodes, films, novels and drawings only contributes to a cleaned-up version of history in which racism and insensitivity never existed and we always did everything right. Those who forget history are, after all, doomed to repeat it. I say that as censorship proliferates, stoked by both sides of the political debate, letting controversial art be freely seen is the greatest weapon. Show Gone with the Wind on Turner Classic Movies. Rerun “Believe in the Stars” and “The Germans” on television, unedited, so that we may laugh at the pitch-perfect comedy and consider the line between depiction and endorsement. Teach the unexpurgated version of Huckleberry Finn in high school English. Go on YouTube and watch Birth of a Nation. Marvel at its genius, recoil at its evil, and ponder how far we’ve come and how far we have to go, as artists and as a society. Censorship does nothing. Understanding does everything.