‘Gone With The Censors’

For lawyer and writer Emmanuel Pierrat, author of “New Morals, New Censorship” (2018), the accusations of racism directed at “Gone With The Wind” and other classic works of literature “go after the wrong target.”

In less than a week, “Gone With The Wind,” the celebrated novel by Margaret Mitchell, has twice been an indirect victim of the more than justified indignation sparked off by George Floyd’s death. This has primarily been the screen adaptation, which won eight Oscars in 1940 (one of which was awarded to actress Hattie McDaniel, making her the first African American to be recognized by Hollywood in this way) and which has been withdrawn from HBO’s movie catalog.* The attack came on June 8 from screenwriter John Ridley, famous for “12 Years A Slave,” and HBO acted on it the next day – only “temporarily,” assured the platform – which alleged the need to discuss the film’s “historical context.”

On Friday June 11, Gallmeister publishers, benefiting from Mitchell’s works entering the public domain, brought out a new translation of the 1936 novel, arguing that the French version previously published by Gallimard had placed much emphasis on “pidgin French.” The deciphering of this double episode is disquieting.

The Great Hypocrisy of the United States

Let’s consider the great hypocrisy shown by the United States, where absolute freedom of speech, enshrined in the Constitution, is deeply undermined as soon as morals and business are involved. The reality, therefore, is of increased self-censorship, which in 2015 drove the most powerful media outlets in the United States to blur the image of Charlie Hebdo rising from the ashes, banned by the very courageous CNN, and Fox News and company.

Each of the classics, in turn, is going on trial. “Carmen,” whose “femicidal” finale has been “revisited” in Italy; Shakespeare and his Shylock, Voltaire on the Jews; Claude Lévi-Strauss on Muslims in “Tristes Tropiques;” not to mention the plot of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or, “worse” still, the illustrations of “Tintin in the Congo.”

“To Kill A Mockingbird,” the marvelous novel by Harper Lee, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner, as was Mitchell, was withdrawn from Virginia school libraries in 2016 shortly after the novelist died. And the use of the word “nigger” by clearly racist characters has prompted schools in Minnesota and Mississippi to exclude the work from their curricula. The same fate has befallen Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn.”

Banning Culture Would Be Our Loss

As is often the case when it comes to arts and culture, accusations of racism go after the wrong targets. “To Kill A Mockingbird” was written precisely to cause discomfort to the American reader in 1960 and to lead them to reject racial segregation, the abolition of which would come about only four years later, thanks to the Civil Rights Act.

I could also digress into the dangers of the theory of cultural appropriation, which has led to white film director Kathryn Bigelow being criticized for wanting to depict Detroit, or the just as recent attempts to censor Blaise Cendrars’ “Little Negro Tales for Children of White People” from 1928.

Coming out of lockdown and the world afterward should be a time for education, retreat, learning and insight. Culture is vital in its diversity, with all its shortcomings, its highs and lows, its works of art and its classics, its avant-garde and its past. Culture is what makes us reflect, what makes us human, what stirs us. To delight in it and to debate it is at once our right and our duty. To ban it through hasty censorship would be our loss and would guarantee that we would return, not to the world that existed before, but to the time of the Inquisition or the “lettre de cachet.”**

*Editor’s note: The film has since been reinstated with a disclaimer/slavery warning.

**Translator’s note: The term “Lettres de cachet” refers to letters sent by the king of France, often to enforce arbitrary actions and judgments that could not be appealed.

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