TCM host Alicia Malone explains why we shouldn’t cancel ‘problematic’ classic films: We should 'listen'

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EXCLUSIVE: Alicia Malone is hoping a new series will shed light on a struggle that classic movie fans have faced over the years.

Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been featuring a new series titled “Reframed Classics,” which offers wide-ranging conversations about 18 culturally significant films from the 1920s through the 1960s that also have problematic aspects.

The TCM host spoke to Fox News about why the network is launching this series now, how movie buffs can enjoy their favorite films in 2021, and whether certain classics should come with warning labels.

Fox News: What inspired the series “Reframed” and why now?
Alicia Malone: During conversations that we were having behind the scenes, the fellow hosts and I were talking about how we should approach the films that do have problematic content. How much should we call it out? When should we call it out? Should we highlight certain stars who had problematic lives? Should we highlight directors? Should we even play these films? Should we wait? 

So from all these conversations, we decided to have a proper round table in public where the hosts could talk more about these issues. The idea is we don’t have the answers and we’re still going to keep playing these films. But also, it’s important to have these uncomfortable conversations and grapple with these grey areas. Because nothing is truly black and white when it comes to classic films. 

"Reframed Classics’ kicked off its series with 1939’s ‘Gone With the Wind.’
(Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Fox News: Why should the goal be to never censor?
Malone: I think if you delete part of a film or delete them entirely from existence, then you miss out on a real opportunity to have these conversations, to think about where we’ve been as a society in the past and how we can address the future. 

I think it’s so important for us to face some of these uncomfortable, problematic parts of our past, shameful parts of our past so that we can dissect them, think about them and face them. If you delete part of these movies, it’s like saying, “racism never existed.” It becomes more painful for the people who are hurt by these images and these stories if ignored completely. We must face them. And that’s actually what we talk about.

Fox News: What was the film selection process like?
Malone: The programming team was really instrumental in pulling together these movies. Of course, sometimes it’s just due to what we have rights to, what we’re able to play, what’s available to play. We also wanted to not just look at the critically acclaimed classics, but the lesser-known ones, too.

Anthony Perkins on the set of ‘Psycho,’ directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
(Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

And as hosts, we all had input on what we wanted to address. I talked to one of the programmers about having a film that would talk about gender identity because that’s a community that often misses out when we have these conversations. And so from that, we programmed “Psycho.” 

Fox News: Which film from the line-up surprised you the most and why?
Malone: I actually found it very valuable and fulfilling to watch “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Although I have seen it so many times, there’s the scene where the brothers kidnapped the girls. It’s a bright, fun musical with beautiful choreography, but there’s also this traumatic moment for these girls to go through. So in the past, I’ve seen the film for entertainment value. Now, I thought, “What does this film say about the way that men treat women and the idea of consent? Is this a sexist film or is it a film about sexism?”

“Psycho” was another one. I recently saw a documentary where it broke down how damaging it was to have all these images throughout Hollywood showing transgender people as something to be terrified of, monstrous, or something to be laughed at. That can translate to real life. People going through a transition have been laughed at or have been thought of as monstrous. And so I feel like I’m learning all the time and I love that.

Fox News: How can movie fans still enjoy classic films in 2021, knowing that certain characters or scenes are troubling?
Malone: I think it’s something that classic film fans have long had to do, particularly if you’re a person of color, if you’re a woman, if you’re gay, if you’re transgender. We’ve all grown up with having to learn the skill of watching a film that’s problematic while being able to also enjoy it at the same time. 

So often these days, we talk about things in terms of whether it’s good, it’s bad, it’s canceled, it’s unproblematic. And you know, there’s so much more than that to explore. It’s a piece of art and it’s going to evolve over time. Our thoughts about it are also going to evolve over time. It’s being able to know that you can love a film and also not be able to justify parts of it.

(L) Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton and Spencer Tracy in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’.
(RDB/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

It’s also never excusing things. So never saying, “Well, that was just the time.” It’s important to analyze a film and celebrate the good parts of it and also discuss the problematic aspects of it and how we can move forward. And at the end of the day, film is such a collaborative medium. It’s never just about one problematic person who’s made a film. You think about all the other people involved in the movie. It’s so important to keep showing these films and also having discussions about them.

Fox News: “Gone With the Wind” was a hot topic in 2020. What do you make of the fact that certain streaming platforms are adding warning labels to certain films?
Malone: I think it’s good. I liked that HBO Max decided to bring the film back after taking it down, which I think was the right decision. But now it has an introduction made by professor Jacqueline Stewart, which really gave the film a historical context. It talked about some of the problematic areas of the movie, the way that it makes slavery into this great, dreamlike fantasy. 

But the film also gave Hattie McDaniel recognition. She endured so much just to stand in the spotlight. So having those kinds of conversations are extremely helpful. It delves into some of the histories around it, but it also gives you a solid base before you watch a film.

I also like what Disney is doing in terms of language that they use, which says these depictions are not OK and they never have been. And that’s very true. I know that some people don’t like the idea of warning labels, but context is key when it comes to films.

Fox News: When it comes to “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” do we know why Mickey Rooney was cast as Mr. Yunioshi?
Malone: We don’t know for sure but… it seems like [director] Blake Edwards thought it would be a very funny idea. And he saw this character as being very slapstick. And Mickey Rooney was good at physical comedy. Mickey Rooney has said that Blake told him to overplay it as much as possible. Now, when you watch it, you think, “How could you not think this isn’t racist and so over the top?” It really shows you how we continue to evolve as a society. 

I have always felt that [the character] doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the movie. If they wanted a character who does physical comedy, they could have just made him White. But I think it also speaks to just how a lot of Americans viewed Asian Americans, particularly Japanese, after World War II. And that character was kind of a caricature.

Fox News: Could you recall that first moment where you realized a classic film just didn’t sit right with you? 
Malone: I grew up loving classic films, especially Alfred Hitchcock. I still do. I still love him as a director…. When I watched “Marnie,” there’s a scene on the ship with Sean Connery and Tippi Hedren. They’re married and she didn’t want to sleep with him. And then he lunges at her on the ship. When I was young, I didn’t quite understand what was going on because they didn’t show anything explicit. They just show him lunging at her and her saying no. And then, waking up the next day.

Tippi Hedren (left) and Sean Connery in ‘Marnie’.
(Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives via Getty Images)

But I knew something didn’t feel right. And then, as I read more about Alfred Hitchcock, I learned about Tippi Hedren, and how she was treated… He was the first guy I really had to grapple with the idea of, can you truly separate the artist from the art? Should you? Should you not?… It can be very confusing. So he was the first guy that introduced me to that concept. 

Fox News: What do you hope audiences will get from this series?
Malone: I hope they get encouraged to have these kinds of conversations themselves, whether they agree or disagree with what we have to say. I hope it encourages people to look at classic films in a new light and grapple with these questions themselves.

I hope people raise questions and digest what they’re really seeing, rather than just canceling things out. And have empathy for people that might be hurt by these depictions in films. Start to understand that maybe we don’t have the knowledge of other people’s experiences. We should start to listen more.

The finale of "Reframed Classics" airs March 25. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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