Let’s start with this: Black lives matter. So much, always, and especially now. Proclaiming such a seemingly obvious fact matters, too. As an older white male, I want to say it loud and often and without hesitation — something that has not always come easily. Sometimes it is easier to think and feel something than to articulate it. Systems and governments and societies have to change, but standing up to racism is something that begins with one’s own feet as well as one’s voice and conscience.
That’s my context to set up what’s next: I was asked for my perspective on a few things in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the on-going protests over the excessive and targeted use of police force in North America. How does this relate to television criticism? Indirectly, as usual. Hamilton’s CHML AM900 called today with Scott Thompson seeking my thoughts on the decision by the Paramout Network to cancel the long-running, police reality series Cops after 32 seasons.
First thought: Cops is still on the air? I was convinced the series was ditched 10 years ago. It has hopped from Fox to Spike TV to pretty much off the radar in Canada over more than three decades.
Second: does it glorify bad cops? Does it instatutionalize police insensitivity towards African Americans? Does it normalize the fact that one in four of the men in American prisons are black? I honestly don’t know. Again, haven’t seen it in a decade plus and really only remember the theme song.
Third: is the network simply trying to score points with viewers by getting rid of an embarrassing TV show — 32 yeas later? Were they going to cancel it anyway?
Another headline today: Warner’s new platform HBO Max has decided to pull the 1939 Oscar-winning movie “Gone with the Wind” off its new streaming service, albeit “temporarily,” because of its glorified portrayal of, among other things, slavery.
Frankly, when it comes to watching either Cops or “Gone with the Wind,” I don’t give a damn. TCM should be ashamed at how often they run the latter. It takes up four hours in which they could have run two better movies.
Here’s a suggestion, however: as director John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) argues, don’t just put “Gone with the Wind” away forever in a vault, but always show it in context. Use it as a teachable moment (or four hours). People who are hurt and offended must be respected. I also feel, however, that it is short-sighted to literally white wash history — even the history of pop culture.
Disney boss Bob Iger says his studio’s 1946 semi-animated feature “Song of the South” (featuring GWTW’s Hattie McDaniel) will never be shown on any of his services, including the new Disney+ streaming service, in his lifetime. I’ve seen it, and I understand why, but access to such a film, given the right historical context, is an opportuity to confront, ask questions and explore answers. We are in an age when context is too often dismissed as a pain in the ass. That’s never true, not in a court of law, and especially not if the ultimate goal is understanding.
Certainly, an argument can be made to burn every copy of Mel Brooks’ 1974 feature comedy “Blazing Saddles.” A word I suspect Wendy Mesley just got suspended by CBC for uttering is used over and over again in that movie. That Brooks offends all races and colours and sexual orientations — and makes us laugh while doing it — doesn’t really make the repeated use of that word any less shocking to hear. I get his argument that a) the script was co-authored by Richard Pryor and b) the word was used not just for its shock value but as a pointed slam against racism. The question, however, is does this word hurt people. For many, the answer is yes, very much. Every single time they hear it.
Or read it, especially in what has long been considered one of the great works of American literature, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I love that novel, and studied it in university, but you would have to sit down and have an open conversation with any child of any colour who may want to read that book today.
A few years ago, the “Muscles from Brussels,” Jean-Claude Van Damme, did a series lampooning himself as a washed-up action star. In the pilot are scenes from a movie remake of Huck Finn where the central character has a riverboat friend he calls “N-Word Jim.” Good joke, I thought, but I doubt even that jest could be made today.
Political correctness and reactionary behaviour can go too far. HBO Max also made headlines this week regard their decision to take a gun out of the hands of one of the classic Warner Bros. Looney Tunes characters, Elmer Fudd. If you took the rifles and axes out of the hands of Fudd in Chuck Jones’ classic, “The Rabbit of Seville,” the cartoon would be about 30 seconds long.
So yes, as Ridley suggests, always show these films with context. TCM is already set up to do this and Ben Mankowitz does it well. But also, and especially in the case of Cops: don’t just make a show of being woke by yanking a show off your schedule in the heat of a worldwide protest movement. Write a sizable cheque to the NAACP, or to any charity currently working to end racism and police brutality. Show people you really do give a damn Paramount Network and HBO Max.
To listen to Wednesday’s conversation with Global News Radio’s Scott Thompson, please follow this link.