In 1953 author Simone de Beauvoir asked Must We Burn De Sade? regarding the French Marquis and his sadomasochistic books. Today, as the twin plagues of Covid-19 and police brutality disproportionately ravage African Americans, we’re likewise asking: Must Gone with the Wind be gone?
On June 10 – the birthday of Hattie McDaniel, who won one of the 1939 epic’s eight Oscars, including Best Picture – HBO Max blew GWTW off the streaming service’s lineup. As statues of historical figures linked to slavery and racism are being razed, removed and defaced at Bristol, London, Montgomery, Richmond, Boston, Philadelphia, Louisville, Barbados, Antwerp, Belgium and beyond, the question is being raised: What should be done about televised/ cinematic systemic racism and bigoted, Confederate TV/movie monuments, like GWTW?
To be sure the 4-hour Technicolor blockbuster about the antebellum South, Civil War and Reconstruction is problematic, right from its racist opening title card: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow… Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…” The title card could very well add, “Look for it… in movies” – but the issue is, how should these collective “dreams” be “remembered”?
In addition to the troubling racist caricatures of Black characters – call it “type-caste-ing” – such as McDaniel’s Mammy and Butterfly McQueen’s despicable Prissy – GWTW glorifies not only the KKK (the movie’s night raiders), but marital rape. After Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler proclaims to his estranged wife: “This is one night you’re not turning me out,” the blockade runner forcibly sweeps resistant Scarlett O’Hara upstairs to the bedroom. In one of cinema’s most jolting jump cuts, the next scene shows obviously satisfied (if not ecstatic) Vivien Leigh in bed.
However, in the same film, Mammy is a complicated character, a slave then servant depicted as a maternal figure, the arbiter of good taste and the proper code of behavior, who frets over Scarlett’s misbehavior in often bossy ways. Rhett declares: “Mammy’s a smart old soul. And one of the few people whose respect I’d like to have.” McDaniel’s shrewd portrayal scored a Black talent’s first Oscar. African American producer Stephanie Allain (2005’s Hustle & Flow, 2014’s Dear White People) noted, “Damn, Mammy is so smart.”
Premiering December 1939 as WWII erupted in Europe GWTW also includes one of the most poignant antiwar scenes in Hollywood history, a sweeping overhead shot of Confederate casualties revealing the disasters of war. And Depression era audiences were moved when impoverished Scarlett swore: “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
Allain called GWTW “a great movie, incredible… Scarlett had total agency over her life. She was equal to men.”
So what should be done with culturally insensitive productions from the past? Ban them outright? Must we burn GWTW? As a film historian/critic who co-authored/authored four movie history books I’ve specialized in chronicling, critiquing and analyzing celluloid stereotypes, in particular of Pacific Islanders. I am also a free speech champion who set a First Amendment precedent in federal court (namely that journalists can report allegations regarding public figures as long as they don’t say those accusations are true). Given all this I have a recommendation as to how one can deal with racist works made during earlier eras other than outright censorship.
Stephanie Allain’s above comments were made during a panel entitled “The Complicated Legacy of Gone with the Wind” at the 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival. The insightful discussion was presented before Turner Classic Movies screened GWTW at its annual filmfest in Hollywood to mark the 80th anniversary of David O. Selznick’s extravaganza – which was also the kickoff movie on the Atlanta-based vintage film network in 1994.
Film historian Donald Bogle, author of 1973’s Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks, An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, moderated the panel, which in addition to Allain included Jacqueline Stewart, Professor of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago, author of 1994’s Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Urban Black Modernity. The only Caucasian panelist was critic Molly Haskell, a Southerner who wrote 2009’s Frankly, My Dear: ‘Gone with the Wind’ Revisited.
Panels such as TCM’s should proceed public screenings and airings of racially troubling works like GWTW at festivals, museum series, on TV and online, because they give viewers historical context, insight and accuracy, enabling audiences to better understand and appreciate these challenging works.
In addition, the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings system, which aims at providing parental guidance for appropriate viewing by children – such as “G”, “R”, “NC-17” classifications – and currently focuses on sex, violence and language, should expand to monitor racism and cultural insensitivity for minors and adults. The MPAA should apply these labels – recommended by film historians, scholars, equal rights activists – to precede all relevant productions when they’re screened on television, online and live venues (when theaters and museums reopen), along with similar entry restrictions.
Of course, long-term solutions to onscreen racism involve creating more authentic productions by nonwhite and culturally aware artists. Perhaps there could be a screen adaptation of Alice Randall’s The Wind Done Gone, which tells GWTW from the slaves’ perspectives?
Misrepresentation mustn’t be blithely dismissed with a Scarlett-like “Fiddle-dee-dee” or as another “lost cause.” As Spike Lee observed when releasing 2000’s Bamboozled, video/celluloid stereotypes can be “harmful” – perhaps even a form of psychological lynching that demands being taken seriously. To paraphrase Rhett’s GWTW closing admonition, when it comes to screen depictions of ethnic groups, “Frankly, my dears, we must give a damn.” Because Black Moviegoers Matter.