Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Amber Ruffin teaches Turner Classic Movies that problematic flops need some context, too

Amber Ruffin
Amber Ruffin
Screenshot: The Amber Ruffin Show

Friday’s Amber Ruffin Show saw the host doing her best Ben Mankiewicz by parking herself in a leather chair next to some potted plants and supplementing one of Turner Classic Movies’ newest (and most controversial to your racist relatives) programming segment, Reframed Classics. As Amber explained to the uninitiated, old movies were often hella problematic when viewed through our current (and still woefully wonky) lens. So TCM’s been doing some contextualizing/retroactive apologizing for the movie businesses’ occasional/constant blind spots, offensive casting choices, and just plain wrong-headed bigotry. Long-cherished movies from The Jazz Singer (Al Jolson in blackface), Gone With The Wind (slavery’s not so bad!), Rope (gay people are thrill killers), The Children’s Hour (gay people are guilt-ridden depressives), Dragon Seed (literally everyone in “yellowface”), and Breakfast At Tiffany’s (Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi—’nuff said) have all had a thoughtful prologue added to them examining the complex issue of the things we love sometimes containing things we emphatically do not.

But what about those movies that are not only not-beloved classics, but also distressingly recent to be needing some “it was the times” context? That’s where Amber’s Reframed Flops comes in. First up, the maybe slightly underrated John Carter, which Amber notes is “widely acknowledged as the biggest box office flop in history” (depending on your metric). Starting off in full film scholar mode, Ruffin explained that the notorious financial failure features as its hero, “a Confederate soldier who goes to Mars, and—,” wait, hold up. Ruffin’s analysis pretty much stopped there, noting in shock that the film came out in the oh-so-long-ago year of ... 2012. “I thought it was a silent film!,” noted a baffled Ruffin, before moving on.

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Sadly, 1999's The 13th Warrior proved similarly in need of reframing, what with Spaniard Antonio Banderas playing a Muslim poet. (Ruffin didn’t mention the U.K.-flavored cacophony of the film’s other 12 “vikings,” but, hey, one insensitive casting choice at a time). Asking incredulously if Omar Sharif wasn’t available, Ruffin was doubly thunderstruck at the revelation that the legendary actor was not only in the John McTiernan-directed bomb in a minor role, but thought it was bad enough to retire from acting for a while. Man, rough stuff, but Ruffin was characteristically optimistic charging ahead to second place all-time flop (again, depending on your measurement), 2013's The Lone Ranger. After all, that one starred Armie Hammer. And Johnny Depp. As Tonto. “Okay, that was dumb, they were dumb,” hand-waved a seen-enough Ruffin, adding, “This segment is over.” Still, with Hollywood’s track record in this area, Reframed Flops is sure to return, especially since Ruffin recently revealed the good news that her show has itself been renewed once more, this time through September.

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Danny Peary's Cult Movies books are mostly to blame.