Movie lovers should consider context when watching movies

This image released by Turner Classic Movies shows Clark Gable, left, and Vivien Leigh in a scene from

This image released by Turner Classic Movies shows Clark Gable, left, and Vivien Leigh in a scene from "Gone with the Wind." (Turner Classic Movies via AP)

/ AP

As a parent, I watched thousands of movies with my children as they grew up.

And I guided my sons, over all those years, to look at any film through the lens of its time, to be aware of the context behind the screen before starting to enjoy the content on the screen. Because, as time passes, we hopefully become more enlightened, aware and respectful. And movies, once they are made, rarely change. I still appreciate now, as a grandparent who loves movies, how this approach enables a family to enjoy just about any movie from any year.

I’m reminded of this view as I read moving words from John Ridley, the screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,” as he expressed concern about the stereotypes presented in the 1939 film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.” His request for HBO Max to take the movie out of circulation for a while until its context can be explained, respects a need for change throughout our world. And reinforced why we should look at any film through the lens of its day.

That view, for “Gone with the Wind,” reflects as much about Hollywood and America in 1939, when the movie was made, as it does the period during and after the Civil War, when the story is set. At that time, few could absorb the cruelty that people expressed to each other, or the divide Americans created over what was right and what was habit. Later, in the Hollywood of the 1930s, different forms of cruelty continued to surface in how scripts were written, characters were shaped, and habits were reinforced. Even Hattie McDaniel, who became the first African American to win an acting Oscar, for her role in “Gone with the Wind,” had to sit in the back of the room at the Academy Awards celebration.

“Gone with the Wind” actually won 10 Oscars that evening and remains, in current dollars, the most successful movie ever made. But that doesn’t mean it was truthful when it was made nor that its illustrations of life fit into today’s world. And Ridley so effectively conveys that, unless we frame anything we see in the moment it was created, we can’t effectively reconcile how that story fits into today’s narrative. As a parent, as I would explain the historical background for any films we shared as a family, often prompting meaningful conversations with my sons about why people would treat other people in ways we found difficult to understand. And I was always thankful that movies could help me initiate conversations that we needed to have, especially about issues that demand truthful exchange.

Whenever “Gone with the Wind” returns to streaming platforms, with an introduction that explains its context, we can again let ourselves journey back to a period long ago and appreciate the film for what it is. Because we will be reminded this is not a story about today.

See you at the movies.