The new era of warnings being placed at the start of films: but is it enough?

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When material made in one era is made available in other, is a warning about unsuitable elements enough? A few thoughts.

Disney launched its gigantic streaming service Disney+ last November in the US, Canada and The Netherlands, with it heading to the UK this March. The service hosts many of Disney’s latest blockbusters as well as original material such as The Mandalorian and plenty of Forky -shorts for Toy Story fans. And also on there, a key selling point, are many of the studio’s classic animated films, such as Lady & The Tramp and Aladdin.

But as the service launched in the US, viewers quickly noticed that some films come with a warning from the big Mickey Mouse himself. “This program is presented as originally created. It may contain outdated cultural depictions” the warning reads. The films that the warning has been attached to are Dumbo, Peter Pan, The Aristocats, The Jungle Book and the original Lady & The Tramp.

Through modern eyes, there’s little question that the films mentioned are very troublesome. What’s notable here, though, is that Disney has decided to present the film in its original form, leaving in the uncomfortable elements of these five films. In fact, there’s an argument that more than five films could have used the warning, but perhaps that’s for another time. Still, it’s notable that the original Aladdin did not have the warning attached to it, especially since the song ‘Arabian Nights’ gathered some controversy already back in the 90s (and even then after it was re-edited; early bootleg videos of the film had a lyric that was removed prior to the theatrical release).

Disney seems to care about its brand enough to acknowledge that some of the material it’s produced in the past now seems racist (and there are one or two of its older films that look like they’ll be going nowhere near Disney+). But in this case, are warnings enough? Should the material instead be edited? Should the two crows be edited out of Dumbo for representing negative, racist stereotypes of black people? Or the offensive song in Lady & The Tramp in which Siamese cats are seen playing a piano with chopsticks? Would the exclusion of these scenes change the narrative in any way and would we even miss them? It’s a fair bet that some long arguments took place.

Whether or not Disney should have edited the “outdated” imagery out,  the wording of the warning it used feels clumsy. The use of the word “outdated” means that these racist depictions have only recently gone out of date, out of fashion. Does that imply, though, that they were once alright and acceptable, maybe even funny? Could Disney have gone further, and acknowledged – appreciating different times – that in hindsight now, it was wrong to include these images, songs and characters in the first place? Does the warning exist as a gesture to cover the company’s own backside in case of backlash?

Lots of questions, not always easy answers.

Because after all, these films come with heaps of nostalgia and they are oftentimes much loved family movies, which is probably why Disney wouldn’t want to edit them. They certainly represent a time in film history. They reflect on how films used to be made, and what used to be included. The question is, should we edit other films too to edit out certain elements, especially when it comes to racism. This is commonplace on television, where sitcom and dramas from the 70s and 80s have had small edits for their TV repeats. On the big screen? 1927’s The Jazz Singer is one of the most influential and important films from a historical, technical perspective as the first motion picture with sound. It also features actor Al Jolson in blackface, which was common practice at the time. Should the film be edited or should it come with a warning now? Can we appreciate the film for one technical achievement while condemning it for its racist ways to tell a narrative?

In late May 2019, Sundance London kicked off its press screenings ahead of the main festival. According to several reactions on social media, many journalists watching Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale left the screening after having felt triggered and incredibly uncomfortable by the film’s strong sexual violence. Days later, the public screenings of The Nightingale, the audiences were warned of the possibly triggering elements of the film. There were several small posters on the walls, warning about the film’s violent nature and during the film’s intro the violence was once again mentioned. And rightly so: The Nightingale includes several very violent rape scenes.

We’ve all seen warnings for flashing images in films for years now. Should this be policy going forward? What counts as triggering and does the material have to be at the level of The Nightingale to warrant a special warning? What responsibility does the viewer hold over researching a film before seeing it?

Warnings are certainly helpful and often needed. Attaching a warning to a new release does no harm (unless it offers spoilers in doing so), but could make a real difference to someone watching the film. No one wants audiences to feel ill or in emotional danger over a film, and the brief description on a BBFC certificate before booking is rarely much to go on (and its extended guidance is inevitably spoiler-filled). Films are designed to move you and to emotionally compromise you, but never to put you in any actual danger. There are several gruesome and vile films, which try to evoke a physical reaction from its audience, most notably in the horror genre. Most of the thrills come from being able to experience danger in a relatively safe way. The killer may be out to get the Final Girl and he may gut and behead several other characters before this, but it’s only entertaining if the viewer knows they’re safe.

Arguably, then, this new era of warnings can be a huge help for someone who is unwilling to put themselves in harm’s way for a film. They’re a useful tool for both cinemas and patrons alike and at best, can make a huge difference to someone’s mental health. It doesn’t hurt to know what you’re about to see, but it might do damage if you don’t know what’s coming.

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