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How do you solve a problematic movie?

How do you make a content warning work?

Posters for Gone With the Wind, The Searchers, and Psycho Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I am a trans woman, and I love The Silence of the Lambs.

I know, I know, I know. I shouldn’t. The serial killer that FBI trainee Clarice Starling attempts to capture kills women so he can cut off their skin and wear it as a suit. He puts on dresses and makeup and dances around to “Goodbye Horses.” Despite the film’s attempts to insist that Buffalo Bill isn’t trans, all anyone remembers of the character is the scenes in which he seems to be making a cruel mockery of trans womanhood (to say nothing of queerness more generally). What’s more, the entire film is about the ways that women are forced to navigate a world of men who look down on them at best and want to kill them at worst. It places Bill within that rubric — and firmly on the “man” side of the ledger.

To say seeing Silence at a formative age made accepting my own transness harder would be an understatement. I came of age in the 1990s, and movies like Silence of the Lambs and The Crying Game, which at least tried to suggest that trans people might be actual humans, blended together with the transphobic comedy of movies like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. There were two paths for me, according to pop culture: mortal terror or huge joke.

But, but, but — Silence of the Lambs gave me a framework to think about myself before I knew who I was in the way it treated Clarice Starling, a woman cast adrift in an ocean of men. It treated Buffalo Bill like a human being, even if the many copycat killers in films and TV and books (including a J.K. Rowling novel just last year) were disastrously bad for trans representation. It featured gorgeous and humane filmmaking from director Jonathan Demme and sumptuous cinematography that blended light with shadow from director of photography Tak Fujimoto. Also! Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, giving two great film performances! A terrific script! “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers!

Silence of the Lambs is a perfect movie — except it’s also a movie that helped perpetuate one of the worst, most transphobic stereotypes of all. I can hold these two ideas in my head, but when it comes time to talk about the movie, especially on social media platforms, it’s far easier to simply dig in my heels and argue either “I love this movie!” or “This movie is transphobic!” without leaving room for nuance.

There has to be a better way.

How to do a movie content warning

Kermit the Frog introduces The Muppet Show
The choice by Disney+ to precede The Muppet Show with content warnings drew criticism.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

One approach to talking about problematic elements of older movies while still leaving room for those movies to be widely viewed is to precede them with a content warning. Most of these content warnings take the form of a short card before the film or show, in the manner of what Disney+ offered to precede 18 episodes of The Muppet Show. These cards are easy to produce, but necessarily vague. The warnings on The Muppet Show say any given episode with offensive elements “includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.”

Far better, I thought, was the introduction HBO Max added to Gone With the Wind, featuring Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart, a film scholar who is the chief artistic and programming officer for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. (TCM and HBO Max are both owned by WarnerMedia.) The introduction was added after the service briefly pulled the movie last summer for racist depictions of Black people and the film’s celebration of the Confederacy.

Stewart’s intro places the film within the context of American history and explains why the movie is so important to film history specifically. It also explains why so many people objected to the film even when it was being made — NAACP president Walter White shared the group’s concerns about the film when producer David O. Selznick purchased the rights to Margaret Mitchell’s book in 1937 — much less today, when viewers are even more aware of the problematic elements that are core to the film.

Adding this disclaimer prompted accusations that the streaming service was trying to cancel or censor the movie. Too often, we love the things we love so much that we interpret any criticism of them as criticism of ourselves. The flip side can also be true: When we see the problematic elements in something, others still liking the film can feel like tacit support for those problems. Stewart’s introduction neatly finds a way to assuage concerns on both sides.

“Some people really need to understand why it’s important to recognize the challenges of Hattie McDaniel [a Black actor who plays Mammy in Gone With the Wind], with the racism she experienced in making the film and even when she received an Oscar for it. That is an aspect of Gone With the Wind that we cannot ignore,” Stewart told me. “For people who would like to just hate it or erase it, we can’t deny that this is the highest-grossing film of all time. This is a film that elevated film to the status it has in American cultural life. Its set design and costuming and cinematography are all masterful. It’s a film you have to look at if you’re well-versed in classic film.”

On its TV channel, TCM has gone even beyond the Gone With the Wind disclaimer. For the month of March, its Thursday night programming will feature classic movies that contain racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic elements. But those movies will be preceded and followed by discussions among the network’s hosts meant to explore what is good and what is troubling about these films, a series the channel is calling Classics Reframed. Sample titles that will feature these conversations include Gone With the Wind, but also Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which features Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man in a broad, over-the-top performance that leans on stereotypes), Psycho (which features yet another man in a dress killing people), and eight others. (TCM will also present a handful of other older movies with difficult elements in them on Thursdays, without the introductions.)

I’ve seen a several of these segments, and they are thoughtful without being hectoring, offering a take on these films that allows them to retain their importance to film history while also calling them out for the elements that need to be called out. They reminded Stewart of one of her favorite elements of going to the movies.

“One of the things that’s so powerful about movies is that they’re a social medium, if you think about the ways we’ve normally watched them,” Stewart said. “I loved it when, back in the day, you’d go to a movie theater, and sometimes people would start having a conversation about the movie in the lobby. We need more spaces for that kind of interactive dialogue.”

As an example, in one segment, TCM’s most senior host Ben Mankiewicz cites The Searchers as one of his favorite movies ever made. The 1956 Western, directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, is explicitly about a virulent racist whose hatred of Native Americans causes him to search out his young niece, who was taken by Native Americans at a young age and has (he fears) become a part of Native tribal culture. He doesn’t want to bring her back to her family; he wants to kill her.

Mankiewicz points out in the segment that even in 1956, the wrongness of the protagonist’s point of view would be noted by an audience that was much more inured to racist depictions of Native Americans on film. But the movie also features a white person playing a Native American, and Mankiewicz connects these dots: White American viewers in 1956 (and often also in 2021) wanted to think about the evils of prejudice, but didn’t really want to think about whose land they were living on.

Conversation can keep movies with troubling elements alive, while providing necessary context

In an interview, Mankiewicz pointed out that though none of the conversations we’re having around these movies are new — as mentioned, the NAACP was already pushing back against Gone With the Wind when it was being made, and GLAAD picketed the 1992 Oscars (where The Silence of the Lambs won several awards) to protest the film’s depiction of Buffalo Bill — our cultural conversations change all the time, while the movies remain what they’ve always been. Shifting the way we talk about these movies is a vital aspect in keeping them as part of our culture.

“I hope that what we’re doing in these conversations enhances your enjoyment of the movie. We’re still going to be talking about race and gender and sexual orientation when my daughter is my age, but I very much hope that we’re still going to be watching Psycho and The Searchers and Stagecoach, too. I want those movies to remain part of the conversation,” Mankiewicz said.

What’s also true of these films is that they were often cultural milestones in their time. McDaniel became the first Black performer ever to win an Oscar for her performance, and TCM host Dave Karger, also part of Reframed, points to the 1961 film The Children’s Hour as an early depiction of LGBTQ lives onscreen. Yet what was daring in 1961 now seems held back by tropes that were new when it came out and today feel constraining and out of touch.

“In 1961, here were Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn playing characters that may or may not be lesbians, even though they couldn’t use the word lesbian at the time. It was terrific that these two actresses at the top of the list played these roles,” Karger said. “But you have this trope that we’ve seen so many times in films with gay characters, where the character who was gay ends up dead by the end of the movie. That’s unfortunate, but it doesn’t mean you have to feel bad for ever loving the movie. It just means you have a little bit more of an open eye.”

This is a frequent point that came up again and again in my conversations about content warnings: Loving a movie with problematic elements doesn’t mean you have to feel bad. It just means you might have something more to consider when you watch it. Yes, a defensive stance can be an understandable approach. But getting past that defensiveness to a broader empathy is necessary for these conversations.

“Roger Ebert once said that movies are empathy machines. You can see movies from all over the world, made by a variety of people, and begin to understand other people’s stories and have more empathy for what they’re going through,” said TCM host Alicia Malone. “I have to have a real self-investigation when I feel defensive. What am I trying to hold on to? I’ve had a lot of realizations around my own privilege and my own blind spots. For a time there, I was so scared to talk about anything to do with racism in America because I’m a white girl from Australia. What could I possibly have to contribute to this conversation? But I realized how much of a privileged point of view that is.”

No, having a conversation doesn’t give viewers carte blanche to just forgive horrible elements in a movie, and there may be a small handful of historically significant films that, nevertheless, might be so toxic that they are better consigned to study by film scholars, rather than being widely rebroadcast. (Multiple people I talked to for this story cited D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — which sparked a resurgence in the Ku Klux Klan — as a film that might fit that bill.) But having that conversation, even in a series of TV segments, is at least a good start.

“My hope is that this series will inspire people to have their own conversations about these films. Whatever we’re talking about on air is just the starting point. I hope it will then carry over into longer conversations,” Stewart said. “We’re in a moment right now where we can’t come together in the same ways we are accustomed to. People are isolated in our homes and consuming a lot of this stuff in lockdown, but that makes it even more necessary to start from the inside out and have these conversations with your family and friends.”