Turner Classic Movies’ Reframed series aims to provide context and conversation about canonical films that have proven problematic by contemporary standards.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Sometimes when you go back to watch an older movie that you love it feels a bit awkward – like, ooh, that hasn’t aged well. University of Chicago film professor Jacqueline Stewart had this feeling on “Purple Rain” with the only prince.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “PURPLE RAIN”)
PRINCE: (singing) Purple rain. Purple Rain.
JACQUELINE STEWART: It’s a musical that I adore. It’s also a film that shows a scene where a woman is thrown into a dumpster.
CHANG: Incredible artistry, undercurrents of misogyny – unpacking those mixed feelings is what Jacqueline Stewart is doing as one of the hosts for the Turner Classic Movies channel on a new series called “TCM Reframed”.
STEWART: We’re asking you to redesign movies that you haven’t thought about in this way.
CHANG: “TCM Reframed” focuses on classic films from the 1920s to 1960s, films that have stood the test of time but are now problematic. Stewart and his co-host Ben Mankiewicz started with Gone With The Wind.
BEN MANKIEWICZ: I mean, the first 30 seconds could tell any kid in America who you were going to teach about the history of racism, the way Hollywood, and therefore America, in many ways, viewed blacks in 1939 – right? – that we were like this – we celebrated the south. This was a golden era, and unfortunately it is over. So we’ve done this before. The difference was in bringing attention to them and making the films part of a national conversation about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender.
CHANG: Jacqueline, Gone with the Wind is a great example for us because this was a film that you know was responsible for inflation. I think more than a billion dollars won eight Oscars. Can you talk about it the way you wanted to quote, not quote, “transform” it? What is an idea that you presented to the audience on this episode?
STEWART: Yeah. I think it is important that you say, quote, not quote, “rephrase” because I think there are many viewers for whom it was not rephrasing to point out the racism of “Gone with the Wind”. It was just a repetition of what some viewers have always seen. And so “Gone with the Wind” was, I think, a really important film for us at the beginning of our “Reframed” series. What was so powerful about “Reframed” for me was not just that we had conversations about them, but the form of the conversation itself.
CHANG: Was it a simple conversation?
STEWART: I think the conversations were tricky at times. I can safely say that when we were talking about “Psycho” we saw a movie that I was surprised to see on the program list. I really needed to read up on how Psycho was such a damaging film to the trans community.
CHANG: Right. And this is the Hitchcock movie about a killer who basically dresses in women’s clothes, I mean his mother’s clothes specifically.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “PSYCHO”)
JANET LEIGH: (as Marion Crane yells) Oh no. Oh.
CHANG: So how do you rephrase it? Where did the conversation go?
STEWART: For me it was a way of understanding how some of the same fears and frustrations we feel when looking at the body of classic Hollywood movies and seeing so few depictions of people with color. And when they do come up, they are problematic. And that could certainly be said of “Psycho,” and a lot of people have. But that wasn’t part of the mainstream framework of this film.
CHANG: I would like to talk about some criticisms of the project. One writer in the National Review called this “part of a dangerous new reconciliation fever” – I’m quoting here – not to break the culture altogether. TCM’s “Reframed” is still going in this direction. And it is said to be following the same revisionism that skewed Hollywood history from the late 1940s to late 1950s. Everything is seen in terms of victimization and insult. I want to go to you, Ben Mankiewicz. Do you have an answer for that type of reaction?
MANKIEWICZ: Look. Of course we knew there would be criticism. And I note – let’s put it this way – with interest that this criticism implies that it doesn’t completely cancel the culture, right? So they say, OK, they don’t cancel it. They are literally showing these movies in prime time so we can’t say they are being canceled. So I’m going to make up a phrase – reconciliation fever.
I was just having a conversation on another podcast about Shawshank Redemption, which is a movie I love. And I – one of the hosts was a friend of mine, a critic, a very thoughtful gay man who said he never quite got into “Shawshank Redemption” because of the rapist’s hostility and rape culture. Now I love Shawshank Redemption. But I think I could have responded, you can’t criticize Shawshank Redemption. You wanted to do the right thing. But I like you can hear him.
And he’s seen it and he likes it better than he does. And it’s okay to have some love and hate and mixed feelings, complicated feelings and feelings when you are watching these movies. I dont know. I welcome that. And if I have a little brief case of reconciliation fever – a day or two – I’ll take a couple of Advil and get past it.
STEWART: It is always important to recognize that we orient ourselves in time and place when we look at something. So we don’t see Gone with the Wind from the perspective of someone who saw it in 1939. We cannot erase those years of history and pretend we can only be preoccupied with something the creators intended. But I’m also impressed with the idea that people who feel hurt shouldn’t express it. It is deeply problematic to pretend we can ignore these problems or to instruct others to ignore these problems.
CHANG: That’s what I thought of with “The Searchers”. It’s John Wayne – right? – John Wayne is his John Wayne. I don’t know what a typical intro would be compared to a “Reframed”.
MANKIEWICZ: Well, the “Reframed” intro would go straight to the indigenous racism that John Wayne’s character Ethan Edwards has in the film.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE SEEKERS”)
JOHN WAYNE: (as Ethan Edwards) But what this Comanch believes – he has no eyes, he cannot enter the spirit land, has to wander between the winds forever. You understand, Reverend. Come on, ceiling head.
MANKIEWICZ: The amazing thing about “The Searchers” is the effective way in which you have become rooted for John Wayne at times. But you don’t know exactly what you are getting yourself into because he could literally kill the person he is trying to save because they have become unclean from the time they spent with Native Americans. So in the “Reframed” series, we tackled this problem head on and recognized that this character is a bad man. And you’re not – you probably shouldn’t be rooting for him. But isn’t it interesting that sometimes you do it anyway?
The idea here is that we are in no way telling people that they shouldn’t care about these movies, watch these movies, enjoy these movies, but that it is indeed okay to be welcome, imperative to them continued relevance of these films to address the issues that are within them if we want them to continue to be part of our culture and that their lingering vibrancy is only enhanced by their inclusion in these great national conversations that we are having.
CHANG: Well, I want to thank you both for speaking to us and for trying to model conversations.
STEWART: Thank you very much.
MANKIEWICZ: Thank you for letting us be here.
CHANG: Ben Mankiewicz and Jacqueline Stewart, moderators of “TCM Reframed”.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA’S “OPENING / ETHAN COMES HOME / MARTIN / TEXAS RANGERS / WARPARTY / INDIAN IDYLL”)
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