Understanding the Classics Without Glorifying Them

One of the things I geek out about is film. I love watching classic movies. I’m currently on a 10-week binge of 80’s best picture nominees, and I proudly support my local indie theater in Chicago.

But classic films can be…problematic.

Case in point: Mickey Rooney’s “yellow-face” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s

A few months ago, my wife and I sat down to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The 1961 Audrey Hepburn classic had been recommended to me many times for its style and influence on the romantic comedy genre.

The movie wasn’t my favorite for many reasons, but one of the most problematic elements is Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature of Hepburn’s Asian-American neighbor.

How would I explain that he should overlook Mr. Yunioshi and just appreciate the parts of the film that were important? It would be a tough conversation, and probably one I wouldn’t be ready for until he was in high school.

A similar debate over our presentation (and in some cases glorification) of our history is playing out right now over Gone With the Wind and statues of Confederate generals that adorn most cities in the Southern United States. Many believe that this film and these statues represent an important part of American history, while others see them as a celebration of violent oppression that has existed for centuries.

I have opinions about the films and the statues, but I’ll leave one thought with you: context matters.

I wouldn’t invite my friends over to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Gone With the Wind, or even Wedding Crashers (seriously, the predatory gay trope hasn’t aged well) without first discussing the implications of the harmful stereotypes these movies enforced. We need to figure out how to put morally reprehensible parts of our history into context so we can learn from them without glorifying them.

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Former startup CTO turned writer. Founder of Draft.dev

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