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'TCM Reframed' Looks At Beloved Old Movies Through Modern Eyes

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sometimes when you go back to watch an older movie you love, it feels a little bit off - like, ooh, this hasn't aged well. University of Chicago film professor Jacqueline Stewart had that feeling with "Purple Rain," starring the one and only Prince.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) Purple rain. Purple rain.

JACQUELINE STEWART: It's a musical that I adore. It's also a film that features a scene where a woman is thrown into a garbage dumpster.

CORNISH: Incredible artistry, undercurrents of misogyny - unpacking those mixed feelings is what Jacqueline Stewart does as one of the hosts for the Turner Classic Movies channel in a new series called "TCM Reframed."

STEWART: We're asking them to reframe films that they had not thought about in those ways.

CORNISH: "TCM Reframed" focuses on classic films from the '20s through the '60s, films that have stood the test of time but are now problematic. Stewart and fellow co-host Ben Mankiewicz started with "Gone With The Wind."

BEN MANKIEWICZ: I mean, the first 30 seconds could tell every child in America who you were trying to teach about the history of racism how Hollywood and, therefore, in many ways, how America viewed Black people in 1939 - right? - that we were so - we were celebrating the South. This was a golden era, and sadly, it's gone. So we did that before. The difference here was calling attention to it and to make the movies part of a national conversation about race, about ethnicity, about sexual orientation and about gender.

CORNISH: Jacqueline, "Gone With The Wind" is a great example for us to talk about because this was a film that grossed, you know, accounting for inflation, I guess, like, more than a billion dollars, won eight Oscars. Can you talk about how you wanted to, quote, unquote, "reframe" it? Like, what is an idea that you presented to the audience in that episode?

STEWART: Yeah. I think it's important that you say, quote, unquote, "reframe" it because I think there are many audiences for whom pointing out the racism of "Gone With The Wind" was not a reframing. It was just a repetition of what some viewers have always seen. And so "Gone With The Wind," I think, was a really important film for us to feature at the start of our "Reframed" series. So what was so powerful for me about "Reframed" was not just that we were having conversations about them, but it was the form of the conversation itself.

CORNISH: Were they easy conversations?

STEWART: They were, I think, sometimes tricky conversations. I can certainly say that when we were talking about "Psycho," that's a film that I was surprised to see on the programming list. I really had to educate myself about the ways that Psycho has been such a harmful film to the trans community.

CORNISH: Right. And this is the Hitchcock film about a killer basically who dresses in women's clothing, I think specifically his mother's clothing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PSYCHO")

JANET LEIGH: (As Marion Crane, screaming) Oh, no. Oh.

CORNISH: So you're reframing it in what way? Where did the conversation go?

STEWART: For me, it was a way of understanding how some of the same anxieties and frustrations that we feel when we look at the body of classic Hollywood films and see so few representations of people of color. And when they show up, they're problematic. And one could certainly say that about "Psycho," and many people have. But that had not been part of the mainstream framing of that film.

CORNISH: I want to talk about some criticisms of the project. A writer in the National Review was calling this "part of a dangerous new reconciliation fever" - I'm quoting here - not quite cancel culture. TCM's "Reframed" still steps in that direction. And it says it follows the same revisionism that distorts the history of Hollywood's late '40s to late '50s. Everything is seen in the terms of victimization and offense. I want to go to you, Ben Mankiewicz. Do you have a response to that kind of reaction?

MANKIEWICZ: Look. Of course we knew there was going to be criticism of it. And I note - let's put it that way - with interest that that criticism includes, well, it's not quite cancel culture, right? So they're like, OK, well, they're not canceling them. They're literally showing these movies in primetime, so we can't say that they're canceling. So I'll make up a phrase - reconciliation fever.

I was just having a conversation on another podcast about "Shawshank Redemption," a movie I love. And I - one of the hosts was a friend of mine, a critic, a very thoughtful gay man who had said that he had never quite got into "Shawshank Redemption" because of the hostility of the rapist, the rape culture going around. Now, I love "Shawshank Redemption." But I suppose I could have reacted, you can't criticize "Shawshank Redemption." They meant to do the right thing. But I - like, you can hear him.

And he watched it, and he likes it better than he did. And it's OK to have some love and some hate and some mixed emotions, some complicated emotions and feelings when you watch these movies. I don't know. I welcome that. And if it gives me a small, brief case - a day or two - of reconciliation fever, I'll take a couple of Advil and get past it.

STEWART: It's always important to recognize that when we're watching something, we're oriented in time and place. So we're not watching "Gone With The Wind" from the perspective of someone who was watching it in 1939. We can't obliterate those years of history and pretend as though we can only engage with something as its creators intended. But I'm also struck by the notion that people who feel that they've been harmed should not express that. Pretending as though we can ignore these issues or that instructing others to ignore these issues is deeply problematic.

CORNISH: I thought of that with "The Searchers." It's John Wayne - right? - John Wayne being his most John Wayne. I don't know what a typical intro to that would be compared to what a "Reframed" would be.

MANKIEWICZ: Well, the "Reframed" intro would just tackle head-on the racism toward Native peoples that John Wayne's character, Ethan Edwards, has in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SEARCHERS")

JOHN WAYNE: (As Ethan Edwards) But what that Comanch believes - ain't got no eyes, he can't enter the spirit land, has to wander forever between the winds. You get it, reverend. Come on, blanket head.

MANKIEWICZ: What's amazing about "The Searchers" is this effective way that you had yourself rooting at times for John Wayne. But you don't know quite what you're rooting for because he may literally kill the person who he is trying to find to rescue because she has been made impure by the time she has spent with Native Americans. So what we did in the "Reframed" series was tackle that head-on and and acknowledge that, yes, this character is a bad man. And you're not - you're probably not supposed to root for him. But isn't it interesting that you do anyway at times?

The idea here is we're not telling people in any way that they shouldn't care about these movies, watch these movies, enjoy these movies, but that it is, in fact, OK, welcome, necessarily, vital for the continued relevance of these movies to address the issues that is in them if we want to continue to have them be part of our culture and that their continued vibrance is only enhanced by their inclusion in these big national conversations that we're having.

CORNISH: Well, I want to thank you both for speaking with us and for trying to model conversations.

STEWART: Thanks so much.

MANKIEWICZ: Thanks for letting us be here.

CORNISH: Ben Mankiewicz and Jacqueline Stewart, hosts of "TCM Reframed."

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAGUE PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA'S "OPENING / ETHAN COMES HOME / MARTIN / TEXAS RANGERS / WARPARTY / INDIAN IDYLL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.