Spike Lee has said that controversial movies Gone With The Wind and The Birth Of A Nation should be screened provided they come with “historical social context.”
Speaking in a new interview, the legendary filmmaker reflected upon his career while discussing his new film Da 5 Bloods. At one point the conversation turned its focus to two of the most famous movies in history – both of which are also notoriously racially insensitive.
The first, 1939’s Gone With The Wind, is America’s highest-grossing film ever – when adjusted for inflation – but its portrayal of Confederacy and slavery on a Southern plantation has long been considered very offensive.
The other, 1915’s The Birth Of A Nation, which was originally titled The Clansman, is a Civil War epic that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and starred white actors in black face portraying black men in an offensive manner. It was directed by D.W. Griffith, who innovated many of the film techniques used today.
While many cinephiles and educators have struggled with how to talk about both of these historically important movies, Lee thinks they should be screened as part of a broader conversation.
The Do The Right Thing director, who is also a professor at NYU Film School, told Moonlight director Barry Jenkins that he shows The Birth Of A Nation in his class. “But I also give it a historical social context,” he explained. “I don’t just talk about the great things, the things that D.W. Griffith innovated.”
Lee then recalled the time he watched the film when he was at NYU. “When they showed that film when I was at NYU, they left out the fact that at the time the Klan was dormant,” he explained, “and this film brought life back to the Klan which directly ended up killing Black folks. That was not taught.”
Moving onto Gone With The Wind, Lee said: “In fourth grade we had a class trip, they had just reissued Gone With The Wind. Myself, my other classmates, we were cringing seeing Hattie McDaniel and Butterfly McQueen.”
He concluded: “You’ve gotta talk about this stuff. But I don’t think [they] should be banned. That’s just my opinion.”
This isn’t the first time that Lee has spoken about Gone With The Wind. In a 2018 interview with Consequence Of Sound, Lee said: “The Black students did not like that film. You know, we didn’t give a fuck about Scarlett O’Hara. [Laughs] And cringed at – and no disrespect to Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award, or Butterfly McQueen – the imagery. ‘I don’t know nothing about birthing babies!’ Oh, we just wanted to duck under the chair.”
He added: “So those films, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation, are very personal to me.”
You can watch Spike Lee’s conversation with Barry Jenkins above. The conversation surrounding problematic art starts around the 12:18 mark.
A statement from HBO read: “Gone With The Wind is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.
“These depictions are certainly counter to WarnerMedia’s values, so when we return the film to HBO Max, it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions, but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”