Cancel Culture and the Black Lives Movement: The Fine Line Between Social Change and Censorship
"Has cancel culture gone too far?"
By Sabrina Fani
In today’s world, there is little room for second chances. The public’s growing demand for accountability has led celebrities and public figures alike to be “canceled”, or rather, “culturally blocked from having a prominent public platform or career,” for their problematic comments and actions. On one hand, the movement encourages positive social change by dissuading individuals in power from engaging in offensive behavior. On the other, however, cancel culture risks excessive censorship. After many have effectively had their voices silenced from being “canceled,” this modern trend begs the question of whether cancel culture has gone too far.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain momentum, many have been, and continue to be “canceled” for their racist actions and comments. The entertainment industry has been especially affected, like many actors, executives, and reality television stars have been fired for racist behavior. Additionally, racist content is being removed from various platforms. However, the industry’s promising strides towards contributing to a more inclusive and accepting culture has not been met without criticism. HBO Max notably caused controversy when it announced it would be removing “Gone With the Wind” from its library of films.
“The industry is now faced with a tough decision...”
The 1939 film tells the love story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in the midst of the American Civil War. The film has been long praised as “one of the most popular films ever made.” In fact, the movie holds great historical significance, as it earned Hattie McDaniel an Oscar, making her the first ever African American to receive the award. Nevertheless, the film generates great disapproval for its portrayal of slavery. Although HBO Max noted that “Gone With the Wind” is a “product of its time,” it acknowledged that “these racist depictions [in the film] were wrong then and are wrong today.” The platform ultimately announced that the movie would not return to the platform unless accompanied by a “discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions.”
The platform’s move came in response to an opinion article in the Los Angeles Times that demanded that HBO Max take “Gone With the Wind” “off [its] platform for now.” In the opinion piece, John Ridley, the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” wrote that the firm ignored the horrors of slavery and “perpetuate[d] some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.” He ultimately asked that the film be taken down from HBO Max for a respectful amount of time.
When the platform ultimately complied with Ridley’s request, it faced criticism. Journalist Megyn Kelley responded by tweeting, “Are we going to pull all of the movies in which women are treated as sex objects too? Guess how many films we’ll have left? Where does this end??” Others expressed concern that removing the film discredited Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar performance that represented a huge achievement for the African American community. On the other hand, stars like Queen Latifah supported the platform’s move, expressing “Let ‘Gone With the Wind’ be gone with the wind.” In response to the controversy surrounding Hattie McDaniel’s performance being “canceled” as a consequence, she responded, “They didn’t even let her in the theater until right before she got that award.” In fact, at the time, McDaniel was forced to sit separately from the rest of her “Gone With the Wind” cast due to racial segregation.
HBO has since confirmed that the film will return to its streaming platform, but with a discussion of its historical context and denouncement of its racist depictions. HBO Max follows in Disney Plus’s footsteps, who added disclaimers to several of its films that depict racist stereotypes, such as “Dumbo” and “Peter Pan.” In fact the platform’s move was a great success, attracting ten million subscribers in just one day. The disclaimer reads, “This Program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions.” However, many still feel that a disclaimer is not nearly enough. Warner Brothers have added similar, more detailed disclaimers to its cartoons such as “Tom and Jerry.”
On the flip side, The Paramount Network announced that its show “Cops”, which glorified police, will be canceled. The show’s thirty-third season was expected to premiere on June 15. The cancelation comes as no surprise, as organizations like Color of Change have been campaigning to remove the show for years. Following “Cops,” reality show “Live PD” was also canceled. In a statement made by A&E, the network expressed, “This is a critical time in our nation’s history and we have made the decision to cease production on ‘Live PD...Going forward, we will determine if there is a clear pathway to tell the stories of both the community and the police officers whose role it is to serve them. And with that, we will be meeting with community and civil rights leaders as well as police departments.”
The truth of the matter is that the entertainment industry carries a history of films, television shows, and music filled with unfavorable notions: racism, sexism, and homophobia amongst others. The industry is now faced with a tough decision: to cancel or not to cancel? Should films with offensive themes be erased from history? Or should they remain as an educational tool as society moves forward? Where does the line get drawn between social justice and censorship? Such questions will continue to shape the path the entertainment industry will follow in the future.
 Aja Romano, Why We Can’t Stop Fighting about Cancel Culture?, VOX (Dec. 30, 2019, 12:40 PM), https://www.vox.com/culture/2019/12/30/20879720/what-is-cancel-culture-explained-history-debate.
 Sarah Hagi, Cancel Culture is Not Real – At Least Not in the Way People Think, Time (Nov. 21, 2019, 6:43 AM), https://time.com/5735403/cancel-culture-is-not-real/.
 Marissa Dellatto and Lauren Steussy, Celebrities Who Got Fired from Their TV Shows for Alleged Racism, New York Post (June 11, 2020, 10:27 AM), https://nypost.com/article/celebrities-who-got-fired-from-their-tv-shows-over-racism-claims/.
 Frank Pallotta, ‘Gone With the Wind’ Pulled from HBO Max Until it Can Return with ‘Historical Context’
 John Ridley, Op-Ed: Hey, HBO, ‘Gone With the Wind’ Romanticizes the Horrors of Slavery. Take it Off Your Platform for Now, Los Angeles Times (June 8, 2020
 Megyn Kelly (@megynkelly), Twitter (June 10, 2020, 3:57 AM).
 Roisin O’Connor, Queen Latifah Weighs in on Gone With the Wind Controversy: ‘Let it Be Gone’, Independent (June 17, 2020), https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/queen-latifah-gone-with-the-wind-hbo-max-streaming-removal-a9569861.html.
 Mae Anderson, Disney Plus Adds Disclaimer About Racist Movie Stereotypes, ABC News (Nov. 14, 2019), https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/disney-adds-disclaimer-racist-stereotypes-67020530.
 Sharareh Drury, Disney+ "Outdated Cultural Depictions" Disclaimer Raises Questions, Say Advocacy Groups, The Hollywood Reporter (Nov. 16, 2020), https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/disney-outdated-cultural-depictions-disclaimer-raises-questions-say-advocacy-groups-1255284.
 Nicole Sperling, ‘Cops,’ Long-Running Reality Show That Glorified Police, Is Canceled, New York Times (June 9, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/09/business/media/cops-canceled-paramount-tv-show.html.
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 Michael Schneider, ‘Live PD’: Inside A&E’s Swift Decision to Cancel the Show, and Whether it Will Ever Return, Variety (June 11, 2020), https://variety.com/2020/tv/news/live-pd-canceled-return-dan-abrams-1234632290/.
Sabrina Fani is a second year student at Loyola Law School concentrating in Business and Entertainment Law.