Old movies (25+ years old) are frequently racist; when they acknowledge the existence of gay people, they are usually homophobic; and they are almost always sexist. Often this insensitivity is chalked up to the times in which the film was made, “Oh, people didn’t know any better back then” is the sentiment deployed to excuse any offenses. However, “people didn’t know any better back then” is not a satisfactory excuse because it is simply not true; some people did know better, which is why movies are largely, though not entirely, more sensitive to marginalized groups now. A more accurate statement would be “the people who were making movies and the people for whom they were making them didn’t know any better back then and they weren’t listening to the people who were telling them otherwise.” Should we give older films a pass and excuse them from any criticism based upon a more modern understanding of the world? Put simply, no. On the other hand, simply dismissing old films as racist, sexist, or homophobic and therefore unworthy of praise and consideration is also unsatisfactory from a critical standpoint.
In a recent episode of the superb podcast The Next Picture Show, critics Tasha Robinson and Scott Tobias have a disagreement over how a troubling a series of scenes in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (1970) that begins with Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and his cohorts conspiring to make a shower tent fall away to reveal a nude Major Margaret “Hot Lips” Houlihan (Sally Kellerman), in the name of discovering whether or not she is a “natural blond.” After the plan is successfully executed, a humiliated and distraught Houlihan goes to commanding officer, Lt. Col. Blake (Roger Bowman), and threatens to resign her commission if Hawkeye and Duke (Tom Skertitt) are not turned over to the MPs. Blake refuses to take any action and is later seen enjoying a cocktail with the offenders, denouncing their victim. It is hard to read this sequence of anything but a celebration of what has come to be known as rape culture. Robinson feels, rightly, that this sequence is toxic and, probably rightly, is enough to poison the rest of the film. Tobias contends that we should not criticize older works with a modern understanding of the world, and, correctly, that portrayal is not advocation. Tobias, who is an incredibly conscientious and empathic critic, is in this case making a flimsy argument; while it is true that we should not understand portrayal as advocation, we can watch any number of horrible acts on screen without believing that the filmmaker is endorsing those acts. The sexual harassment heaped upon Houlihan in M*A*S*H* is clearly portrayed as the fun-loving, irreverent boys taking the uptight, straight-laced woman down a peg. M*A*S*H* is undeniably very sexist, it is also undeniably a seminal anti-Vietnam War satire and a key text in the oeuvre of Robert Altman, one of cinema’s most essential directors. So does one trump the other?
There are certainly some films for which critics have widely decided that offensiveness of content trumps greatness of cinematic achievement. Key examples would be D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935), the former a celebration of the bravery of the Ku Klux Klan, the latter a Nazi propaganda film, both finely-crafted, remarkably influential films which, because of the views they espouse, are correctly discounted from consideration as “great” films, at least without some considerable amount of qualification. Despite the fact that both of these films were made in places and ages when the hateful views they espouse were more widely accepted, critics have decided, using the filter of the values of a more progressive age, to deny them a place in the canon of great cinema.
While the denial of greatness to Triumph of the Will or Birth of a Nation is a pretty easy call since both are nakedly hateful, there are a great many other films for which content that is troubling by current standards has not stood in the way of canonization. A key example: Gone with the Wind (1939). Gone with the Wind is a film nostalgic for the Antebellum South. Text at the beginning of the film reads:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…
Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…
Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair of Master and of Slave.
Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered.A Civilization gone with the wind…
This opening crawl essentially states that there was a great romance to the quasi-feudal system of the Antebellum South. The remainder of the film uses the opening crawl as a kind of thesis statement: a scene meant to illustrate what was lost when the Union won the war has two black men riding a carriage past a walking Scarlett (Vivien Leigh). The film is undeniably racist yet is still widely regarded as a classic. Casablanca (1942), another film from the era , is also questionable in terms of race, most notably when it comes to its sole black character, Sam (Dooley Wilson), who is referred to by Isla (Ingrid Bergman) as “that boy at the piano,” never mind that Wilson was in his mid-fifties at the time of shooting. Currently, while both films are considered classics, Gone with the Wind is, correctly, more commonly referred to as a racist film, its racism tempering its classic status.
It is right that Casablanca, even with its race-relations that would be offensive in a film produced in the present, be considered a classic while Gone with the Wind is referred to with a kind of “it’s important and well-made but it’s really racist.” This is because the racism of Casablanca is incidental while the racism in Gone with the Wind is pointed. Gone with the Wind celebrates a racist institution while Casablanca is generally condescending to its only black character. Only the latter could be reasonably excused with “times were different.” This is the key difference and should determine whether a film’s offenses are enough to trump its artistic merits: are the offenses incidental or pointed?
When considering a film from the past, especially one that comes across as racist, sexist, or homophobic by modern standards, it is important to consider the sociological environment it which it was made but not necessarily use that environment as a blanket excuse. Does the film happen to portray marginalized characters in an offensive manner as Casablanca does or does it endorse the viewpoint that it is right to treat those characters in an offensive manner as Gone with the Wind does? It may seem, in many cases, like splitting hairs but there are simply too few films from bygone eras that contain no offensive material. Films of great artistic merit should not be discounted simply because they do not live up to our current, more progressive, standards. Nor should they be outright excused. M*A*S*H is a classic, but boy is it sexist.