Entertainment Movies Woke cinema: Classic films that couldn’t be made today

Woke cinema: Classic films that couldn’t be made today

A signed copy of the book Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was auctioned in 2007. Photo: AFP/Getty
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Joker director Todd Phillips proclaimed last year that he quit comedy because ‘woke culture’ had ruined it.

Given Joker just received 11 Oscar nominations, the decision seems to have worked for him.

But maybe it’s a good thing that so-called PC culture would make it difficult to produce some cinematic classics today.

Gone With the Wind (1939)

Where to start with this multiple Oscar winner?

Seen at the time as a breakthrough civil rights film through Hattie McDaniel’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar, it’s actually only a few short steps from the malevolently racist The Birth of a Nation.

Gone With The Wind appears to find cover for depicting slaves as lazy, slow-witted comic relief with McDaniel’s sharp tongued, caring, but perpetually exasperated Mammy.

Oh, and when general store owner Frank – alongside his aristocratic friend Ashley – rides against the shantytown to avenge his soon-to-be-widowed wife’s honour, that’s a Ku Klux Klan raid.

Then there’s the scene where Rhett (played by Clark Gable) rapes Frank’s wife, Scarlett, and she’s shown later to have enjoyed it.

I know we must account for the customs of bygone ages in critiquing films, but seriously, I do declare!

Casablanca (1942)

While we’re having a swing at Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ even Casablanca’s most loyal fans wince when Ilsa (27-year-old Ingrid Bergman) refers to African-American Sam (56-year-old Dooley Wilson) as “that boy at the piano”.

Dooley Wilson in Casablanca.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship this was not. Photo: IMDb

The Searchers (1956)

The Western is not a genre known for progressive social and racial messages.

Which is why it’s odd that in one film that has been praised for just that, these messages are so poorly presented.

The Searchers, John Wayne’s favourite of his films, is a terrific Western and explores in a relatively mature way the hatred white settlers and Native Americans held for each other from both ends of the spectrum.

But in a scene seemingly included for comic relief Ethan Edwards (Wayne) and his paladin Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) find themselves unwillingly paired up with a Kiowa chief’s daughter in their search for Ethan’s kidnapped niece, Debbie.

They subject the young woman to various humiliations before she runs off and is killed by cavalry.

In the climax Ethan kills and scalps Debbie’s kidnapper, Scar, having cynically mutilated another slain Comanche warrior earlier in the chase.

Scar, of course, is played not by a Native American but by Henry Brandon, a German immigrant born Heinrich von Kleinbach.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

A Western that hit the ball out of the park in attacking racism head on was Mel Brooks’ absurdist classic. Brooks concedes he couldn’t make the film today because he would offend too many people.

Certainly the prodigious use of the ‘N’ word would raise eyebrows, as it did at the time. But Blazing Saddles targeted its offensiveness with utter precision.

Cleavon Little as sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles.
Cleavon Little as sheriff Bart in Mel Brooks’  Blazing Saddles (1974). Photo: IMDb

Brooks always punches up, not down, and his film took on American intolerance by mercilessly skewering the small-minded ridiculousness of the middle class, embodied in the good citizens of Rock Ridge, who prepare to murder their new sheriff when he appears before them as a ‘n—-r’ but then are held at bay when sheriff Bart takes himself hostage.

Even when the citizens throw in with the railroad workers to defeat the land-grabbing Hedley Lamarr, their leader proclaims: “Alright, we’ll give some land to the n—–s and the ch—s. But we don’t want the Irish!”

Blazing Saddles identified its target and obliterated it like a drone strike. Could it be made today? Maybe not, but that’s a damn shame.

Sixteen Candles (1984)

The 1980s was a progressive decade in some respects, but you wouldn’t know it from the ’80s cinema’s distinctive genre, teen comedies.

This beloved John Hughes vehicle that made Molly Ringwald a household name suffers from its racist portrayal of Chinese exchange student Long Duk Dong, but that’s a walk in the sunshine compared to its sexual politics.

Consider school hunk Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) bemoaning his need for love to super geek, Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall): “I’ve got [my girlfriend] Caroline in the bedroom right now passed out cold. I could violate her 10 different ways if I wanted to.”

Jake’s solution? Furnish Ted with Caroline and his father’s Rolls-Royce, in which Ted has sex with the sleeping teenager.

Anthony Michael Hall, Michael Schoeffling, and Haviland Morris in Sixteen Candles (1984).
Jake Ryan won the heart of Molly Ringwald’s Samantha. He shouldn’t have. Photo: IMDb

This scene is intended to show Jake as different from other guys and worthy of Samantha’s (Ringwald’s) love. Not that this was atypical of teen comedies.

In 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, hero Lewis has sex with head cheerleader Betty by disguising himself as her boyfriend, that is, by raping her. Betty falls in love with him, of course.

Trading Places (1983)

Eddie Murphy’s breakthrough comedy is fast becoming another rediscovered Christmas classic drawing people into Facebook squabbles over whether it’s a Yuletide film or not.

It’s unapologetically raunchy, but even so you cringe when Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy) grabs a passing woman for sex and then calls her a bitch when she shakes him off.

Then there’s the conclusion where Billy Ray and Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) turn the tables on the wicked Duke brothers through a scheme requiring Winthorpe to don blackface make-up.

Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis and Eddie Murphy in 1983's Trading Places
Perhaps Dan Aykroyd should have stuck to busting ghosts. Photo: IMDb

This failed to create a ripple of protest at the time.

So yes, ‘woke’ culture might have prevented certain classics being produced today.

But when accommodating ‘contemporary vales’ means laughing at date rape or cheering the Ku Klux Klan, perhaps it’s time for a discussion.

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