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TCM will examine 18 ‘problematic’ classic movies in new series

Turner Classic Movies will hold a full roundtable discussion at the start of several of old Hollywood’s most celebrated films to warn viewers about ‘sexist and racist content’.  

On Thursday, the cable network kicked off Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror, a series where it says it examines the ‘troubling and problematic’ aspects of the classics, which were released from the 1920s to the 1960s.

Among the 18 flicks under the microscope include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Psycho, Gone With the Wind, My Fair Lady, Stagecoach, The Jazz Singer, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and more.  

Several hosts will take turns holding roundtable introductions before the start of each movie where they will discuss the history and cultural context of the movie. 

They will also warn viewers who have never seen these films before about potentially upsetting moments including depictions of racism, sexism, and LGBTQ issues. 

Among the problematic aspects will be white actors portraying non-white roles or donning blackface.

This includes Mickey Rooney’s performance as Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Sam Jaffe playing the title role of Gunga Din, Al Jolson donning blackface for The Jazz Singer. 

HBO Max, the streaming service that airs TCM movies, has not said whether or not they will be pulling any of the films, or adding the roundtable discussion.

Reaction to the roundtable discussion has been varied, with some classic movie fans saying Americans should ‘speak of painful tradition. We aren’t going to 1984 ourselves to a more just and equitable society’.  Others said they’d had enough of ‘cancel culture’. 

But some classics fans were in support of the discussions, with one saying: ‘I absolutely ADORE Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but it has the most racist portrayal of an Asian character that I’ve ever seen. Good gracious.’  

TCM is launching a new series called Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror to look at ‘troubling and problematic’ aspects of old Hollywood movies such as Gone With the Wind for its portrayal of happy slaves in the Old South. Pictured: Vivien Leigh has her corset tightened by Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind

The 18 films will be discussed for issues such as racism, sexism and LGBTQ issues, such as Mickey Rooney playing Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany's (above)

The 18 films will be discussed for issues such as racism, sexism and LGBTQ issues, such as Mickey Rooney playing Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (above)

‘We know millions of people love these films,’ TCM host Jacqueline Stewart, who is participating in many of the conversations, told the Associated Press. 

‘We’re not saying this is how you should feel about Psycho or this is how you should feel about ‘Gone with the Wind.

‘We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to “I love this movie. I hate this movie”. There’s so much space in between.’

Stewart, a University of Chicago professor who in 2019 became the channel’s first African American host, has spent her career studying classic films, particularly those in the silent era, and black audiences

She knows first-hand the tension of loving films that also contain racial stereotypes.

‘I grew up in a family of people who loved classic films. Now, how can you love these films if you know that there’s going to be a maid or mammy that shows up?’ Stewart said.

‘Well, I grew up around people who could still love the movie. You appreciate some parts of it. You critique other parts of it. That’s something that one can do and it actually can enrich your experience of the film.’ 

Every Thursday for the month of March, rotating hosts will hold roundtable introductions about the history and context of the movie and warn viewers of upsetting moments

Every Thursday for the month of March, rotating hosts will hold roundtable introductions about the history and context of the movie and warn viewers of upsetting moments

As well as discussing actors donning blackface, or white actors playing non-white characters, the selections allow the hosts – Stewart, Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone and Eddie Muller – to think about Hollywood films more broadly, too.

For Psycho, the hosts talk about transgender identity in the film and the implications of equating gender fluidity and dressing in women’s clothes with mental illness and violence. 

It also sparks a bigger conversation about sexuality in Alfred Hitchcock films.

During the My Fair Lady conversation, they talk about why the film adaptation has a less feminist ending than the stage play, and Henry Higgins’ physical and psychological abuse of Eliza Dolittle. 

During the My Fair Lady conversation, the hosts will discuss Henry Higgins' (right, played by Rex Harrison) physical and psychological abuse of Eliza Dolittle (left, played by Audrey Hepburn)

During the My Fair Lady conversation, the hosts will discuss Henry Higgins’ (right, played by Rex Harrison) physical and psychological abuse of Eliza Dolittle (left, played by Audrey Hepburn)

Among the films up for discussion are The Jazz Singer, considered the first talking picture, for Al Jolson's blackface routine (above)

Among the films up for discussion are The Jazz Singer, considered the first talking picture, for Al Jolson’s blackface routine (above)

For the discussion of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the hosts will look at aspects of black actor Sidney Poitier's films that are oriented primarily to white audiences. Pictured, left to right: Poitier, Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in the movie

For the discussion of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the hosts will look at aspects of black actor Sidney Poitier’s films that are oriented primarily to white audiences. Pictured, left to right: Poitier, Katharine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in the movie

For Psycho, the hosts talk about transgender identity in the film and the implications of equating gender fluidity and dressing in women's clothes as done by Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) with mental illness and violence

For Psycho, the hosts talk about transgender identity in the film and the implications of equating gender fluidity and dressing in women’s clothes as done by Norman Bates (played by Anthony Perkins) with mental illness and violence

Not feeding her and stuffing marbles in her mouth are played for cute laughs in the film. Is it a commentary on misogyny or just plain misogyny?

And on the night that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner will air, Stewart discusses the complex legacy of actor Sidney Poitier, who plays a black man engaged to a white woman, to the horror of her family.

‘His career is so important for the ways that white Americans really started to have more sympathy and understanding of black people,’ Stewart said.

‘But at the same time, there are aspects of his films that are clearly oriented primarily to white audiences. That opens up all kinds of complications for black viewers who felt that he wasn’t a representative of the race as a whole.’ 

Classics fans were quick to take to Twitter to voice their support over the decision to host the roundtables, but others slammed it as ‘cancel culture’.

One user, @natetheworld tweeted: ‘Don’t ban Dr. Seuss. Discuss his racism. Don’t edit Gone with the Wind. Talk about slavery in the south. Don’t remove black face from Golden Girls. Speak of the painful tradition. We aren’t going to 1984 ourselves out to a more just and equitable society.’

Another, @ewing_34, said she was ‘sick’ of cancel culture. ‘I’ve had enough of that nonsense after reading My Fair Lady is now “problematic”. Like my mother just said we need to drive the culture police crazy’.  

‘So TCM is “looking into” getting rid of 18 movies including Breakfast at Tiffany’s and My Fair Lady! All because they are not woke movies! Sick,’ user @Pensgirl84 tweeted. 

But other movie buffs were in full support of the discussions, with @KellyTrude saying: ‘I love My Fair Lady but does anyone think My Fair Lady ‘isnt’ troubling!?!’

@inb4den tweeted: ‘I absolutely ADORE Breakfast at Tiffany’s but it has the most racist portrayal of an Asian character that I’ve ever see. Good gracious’.

Another user, @mogulseeker suggested cutting scenes instead of canceling the movie. ‘I love Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and if they just took out hte Rooney scenes from teh movie, it wouldn’t negatively impact the film at all.’ 

User @BillBriouxTV said ‘kudos’ to TCM for ‘tackling the thorny issue of questionable content in classic films’, while another – @captainpearson – responded by sayind that Breakfast at Tiffany’s is ‘such a delightful fun film – except for the Mickey Rooney parts, which are so unnecessary, insulting and unfunny. Roony was so charming in so many parts, hard to believe they did it!’ 

Companies have lately taken to adding disclaimers before shows and films depicting outdated or stereotypical characters and themes. 

And in some instances, films have just been made unavailable. Disney has said that its 1946 film Song of the South will never be on Disney+. 

Recently, it was revealed that Walt Disney Company holds monthly meetings with advocates from women and minority groups who comb through hundreds of hours of Disney-streamed content looking for potentially offensive material to flag. 

The goal of Reframed Classics is to help give audiences the tools to discuss films from a different era and not just dismiss or cancel them. 

And Stewart, for her part, doesn’t believe that you can simply remove problematic films from the culture.

‘I think there’s something to be learned from any work of art,’ Stewart said. 

‘They’re all historical artifacts that tell us a lot about the industry in which they were made, the cultures that they were speaking to.’

Every Thursday, through March 25, four to five movies will be ‘Reframed’ beginning at 8pm ET.

THE PROBLEM WITH EACH OF THE 18 MOVIES THAT WILL BE ‘REFRAMED’ ON TCM 

March 4

Gone With the Wind – Romanticized portrayal of antebellum life before the Civil War and portrayal slaves as happy and content w

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Sexism controversy over plot of the film of kidnapping women and forcibly confining them to marry

Rope – Portrayal of two queer characters who have just committed a murder

The Four Feathers – Racist views including the term ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’ to denote Arabs and take on British imperialism in Arabia

March 11

Woman of the Year – Sexism and the idea that a woman can only be successful in the workplace if she lacks femininity 

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner – Aspects of black actor Sidney Poitier’s films that are oriented primarily to white audiences

Gunga Din – White actor Sam Jaffe playing the title role of Gunga Din, who is an Indian character

Sinbad, the Sailor – White actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr playing the Arab role of Sinbad and portrayal of Arabs

The Jazz Singer – Al Jolson’s blackface routine

March 18

The Searchers – White actor Henry Braydon playing Native American character and abuse of Native American woman by white character. 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s – White actor Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Japanese character Mr Yunioshi

Swing Time – Fred Astaire’s blackface routine 

Stagecoach – Portrayal of Native Americans and their being seen as a threat

Tarzan, the Ape Man – Portrayal of Africans including one attack by ;a tribe of aggressive dwarfs’

March 25

My Fair Lady – Sexism and Henry Higgins’ physical and psychological abuse of Eliza Dolittle

The Children’s Hour – Portrayal of LGBTQ issues when two female teachers are accused of ‘sinful, sexual knowledge of each other;

Psycho – Transgender identity and the implications of equating and dressing in women’s clothes with mental illness and violence

Dragon Seed – White actress Katharine Hepburn playing the role of a Chinese woman named Jade

 

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