1939’s Gone With The Wind has had a weird resurgence in 2020. It was mentioned in a rally speech by President Donald Trump where he spoke ill of the Academy Award-winning South Korean film Parasite, a movie he has most likely not seen. He went on the Boomer-pleasing route of ranting how movies used to be great, citing, of all films, Gone With The Wind, a film which has absolutely nothing to do with Parasite outside of both of them being Academy Award winners. Harping on how great the classic film was, he went on a slight rant about wanting to “get back Gone With The Wind,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean.
More recently, Warner Bros’ streaming service HBO Max decided to briefly take down Gone With The Wind from its streaming selection after an op-ed piece by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley in The Los Angeles Times. In the article, Ridley wrote:
“It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”
The film was placed back on HBO Max at a later date with an added discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions.
It’s a wise move considering Warner Bros already did something similar for their racist Looney Tunes shorts which they released on DVD with a content warning about the era in which they were made. There was a text disclaimer and even an intro where Whoopi Goldberg addressed how these shorts were wrong then and they are wrong now, despite carrying historical importance for the history of the studio. This isn’t some wildly new trend either, it was developed by WB over 15 years ago.
Upon reading the headline about HBO Max taking the film down, however, many reacted negatively spouting that Warner Bros was trying to be too politically correct and trying to erase cinema history.
First off, Gone With The Wind is not going away just because it was temporarily removed from one streaming service that is less than a month old. The film can still be digitally rented from Fandango Now, Amazon, Google Play, Apple, YouTube, Vudu, Microsoft, AMC on Demand, and Redbox. The DVD is also still in print and can cost as low as $5. There was even an Anniversary gift set released not too long ago. Clearly, this film is not going anywhere just because a streaming service won’t host it for a little while.
Yet, because of this move, many have felt that Warner Bros is trying to sully cinema classics. The reactionaries often cite how Gone With The Wind was a classic given its massive box office success and how it won numerous Academy Awards. That it was from a simpler time when films were more elegant and traditional. That it’s messages were not meant to be hurtful or racist but innocent and truthful of the times.
Of course, this can only be believed if seen through rose-colored glasses and not looking into the history behind the film and its greater cultural impact which brought about this context questioning in the first place. So let’s not pretend that Gone With The Wind is somehow exempt from a critical eye by writing it off with different-time-isms. Let’s actually dig into what makes this Academy Award-winning film a problem of not just today but of its own time.
Gone With The Wind was based on the novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell.
It told the story of Scarlett O’Hara and how she adapted during the Civil War, losing her entire plantation in a fire and then building herself back up to be both wealthy and wed. She also relied on slave labor and maids who were former field hands. Though there is talk of the Civil War and slavery, it is mostly background noise for the real focus of Scarlett’s conflicted romance with the aggressive Rhett Butler.
This was the only novel Margaret ever published and was part of a genre known as Anti-Tom or plantation literature, known mostly from the 19th century as being pro-slavery. It depicts African Americans as people to be pitied and in need of white folks, often perpetuating racial stereotypes. The Klu Klux Klan plays a role as well as coming off as heroic supporting characters.
One passage describes the black former field hands behaving…
“as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do. Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild—either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance.”
Even the more personal character of Mammy is still written in the book as a “sad, uncomprehending monkey.” So let’s not pretend that the source material was somehow an innocent work of historical Southern drama.
After a number of issues from conflicted studios concerning producing a film based on the novel, David O. Selznick of Selznick International Pictures eventually bought the film rights for $50,000. That was in 1936, however, and there was still much work to be done before the film would even head into production. The casting, in particular, took two years going through a number of different disputes in deciding on the two leads until Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh were chosen for the top roles of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara respectively. Before arriving at this point, Selznick had apparently spent over $100,000 on a nationwide casting call where over 1,400 unknowns were interviewed to finally find his Scarlett.
In terms of adapting the book, the screenplay proved to be a challenge as the first draft by screenwriter Sidney Howard was said to be so thick the running time would’ve been six hours. Even after the script was complete, Howard was called upon by Selznick to be on set for more rewrites. He refused and local writers had to be brought on board to continue retooling the script for the screen. Likewise, directing duties were tossed around and affected the writing as well. Director George Cukor worked on the film for three weeks before he was fired and replaced with Victor Fleming, who had at the same time been finishing The Wizard of Oz. Fleming was dissatisfied with the script which led to writer Ben Hecht rewriting the entire first act.
With the film already five weeks into filming without a fully realized script and the production costing $50,000 a day, Selznick and Fleming cracked the whip on Hecht and worked him to the bone to finish the script in a hurry. Selznick and Fleming even acted out scenes and demand that Hecht write this down as quickly as he could. Hecht wrote of this:
“After each scene had been performed and discussed, I sat down at the typewriter and wrote it out. Selznick and Fleming, eager to continue with their acting, kept hurrying me. We worked in this fashion for seven days, putting in eighteen to twenty hours a day. Selznick refused to let us eat lunch, arguing that food would slow us up. He provided bananas and salted peanuts.”
Ultimately, it was Sidney Howard that received the sole screen credit for the screenplay.
There are numerous other aspects of this production that were troubling in that they led to burnouts and last-minute and uncredited replacements but what I ultimately want to highlight here was how chaotic and rushed this film was in its assembly that it would overlook it’s more problematic elements and often cave to more societal demands rather than subvert them.
This can even happen with good intentions of the era. The clear leader on this project was Selznick and he was very open about trying not to make a racist film. He wrote in one studio memo:
“I, for one, have no desire to produce an anti-negro film…In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger, which I do not think should be difficult.”
Selznick did not want his film to be a repeat of The Birth of a Nation and tried to soften the adaptation to be less of an endorsement of racism. As an example, there’s mention in the book of a KKK rally, and this language is changed in the film referring to the rally as a “political meeting.”
He also wanted to make the African American characters more human and relatable than they were in the book. While Selznick somewhat succeeded in this given the attention lavished on the character of Mammy, it seemed that his attempt at humanizing the oppressed came at the sacrifice of remaining silent and perhaps unintentionally apologetic of slavery.
Now of course one may look at the film’s success alone in box office and accolades and try to sweep away this notion of the film being problematic as a retroactive issue. After all, Hattie McDaniel was in the film and she became the first African American woman to win an Academy Award for her supporting role as Mammy. So it must’ve been a landmark film at the time in terms of depicting black people in movies, right? Well…
In the film, Hattie McDaniel played the role of Mammy, a former slave that had been granted status as the maid of Scarlett. Mammy was sassy but also highly subservient to the whims of Scarlett, despite calling her out on most of her shit. McDaniel’s performance was such a stand-out that she would soon become notable enough to garner attention from the Academy.
Gone With The Wind had its premiere in Atlanta where, due to Jim Crow laws, Hattie McDaniel could not attend the screening. Clark Gable had apparently threatened to boycott the event because of this but McDaniel was said to have pushed for him to attend anyway.
McDaniel did attend the Academy Awards ceremony when she was nominated but had to do so in a segregated section away from the white celebrities at the venue of the Coconut Grove. Coconut Grove did not allow black people in at the time and only made an exception for McDaniel. She would win the award for Best Supporting Actress, however, and gave her speech on stage, stating of her win:
“It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.”
There was a party after the event but it was at no-blacks clubs which McDaniel could not attend.
Though McDaniel appeared inspirational to some for her major win of an award, her stereotypical role highlighted just one of the major issues that black people had with the film.
For the film’s portrayal of slavery of the plantation era, the NAACP urged the filmmakers to remove a portion of the book that depicted black men assaulting Scarlett and the Klu Klux Klan coming to save her. They also urged the removal of the N-word to reduce the incendiary nature of the film’s portrayal of African Americans with racial slurs. While Selznick was willing to comply by having the assault scene changed and the racial slurs reduced to “darkies,” the overall cheery depiction of slavery remained.
Even with this structuring to avoid the damning comparison, the film was often compared to The Birth of a Nation as a different form of sidestepping historical racism. African-American writer Carlton Moss wrote in his review that The Birth of a Nation was a “frontal attack on American history and the Negro people” while Gone With The Wind was a “rear attack on the same.”
And this is easy enough to see when comparing the two films. The Birth of a Nation is easy to condemn with the villainizing of African-Americans in gross blackface and public lynchings from the Klu Klux Klan. It’s a film of easy-to-spot racism.
But then there’s Gone With The Wind, a film which swings the emotional pendulum in the opposite direction, that African Americans who served as slaves were not dangerous but upbeat to be serving their white masters. There is no turmoil or exceptional hardship among the slaves. They all seem happy and quirky, but worse than that they are seen as dependent on white people.
They are portrayed as either being slow as with the former slave Pork or keen on slavery as with Big Sam. Malcolm X once remarked that the actress of Butterfly McQueen playing the overreacting house servant Prissy was such an agonizing depiction of black people that he felt like crawling under the rug anytime she went into her bit.
For McDaniel’s placement in this picture as one of the highlights, NAACP leader Walter Francis White called her an Uncle Tom. McDaniel’s response was that White wasn’t black enough to make these statements and that she would rather make seven hundred dollars a week playing a maid than seven dollars being one.
The African American community at the time was deeply split on the picture. Some praised McDaniel for bringing more attention to black actors while others called out the film for being a weapon of terror against black America with her being a pawn. Some picketed while others praised.
Though McDaniel did receive more roles after Gone With The Wind, the majority of them were that of the domestic maid where her feisty nature was often toned down. It became clear that McDaniel just wanted to work as an actor even if it meant playing the same role repeatedly and even if it reinforced black stereotypes. She tried to remain apolitical to keep her job and stayed out of the Negro Actors Guild of America until much later in her career. Her fears were that if her critics and the NAACP complained about her portrayals that she wouldn’t receive work. According to actor Hedda Hopper, she claimed that McDaniel’s troubles in finding work were not because of racism but the intervention of her “own people.”
In truth, McDaniel felt less like someone trying to blaze trails for African American roles and more just someone who wanted to work. She was typecasted right up to her final role but there was so little she could do within the Hollywood system. You need only look to another Gone With The Wind black actor to see this avoidance of negative depictions while still working wasn’t possible, as Butterfly McQueen refused to take on demeaning and stereotypical roles which forced her into early retirement.
So the legacy of Hattie McDaniel is a bit more complicated than just being the first black actress to win an Academy Award, especially when you consider that the next black woman to win this award would not be for 50 years. Considering that her final wish of being buried at the Hollywood Cemetery couldn’t be done because of segregation there as well, it was clear that Hollywood had a long way to go in terms of race. But the questioning of Gone With The Wind did not die with McDaniel or the era.
Film historian Richard Schickel made the argument that the true test of a film’s quality is what you can remember from it. In 1973, he wrote an article that argued Gone With The Wind does not warrant much for the memory and that despite a few decent scenes there was not a whole lot that wowed him in the 200+ minutes. I bring this article initially to stress how the film has not always been seen as a rosy classic of cinema’s golden age, even when given enough decades to congeal.
Over those many decades, Gone With The Wind has certainly received a lot of acclaims. It has been routinely touted on numerous AFI lists and was one of the earliest films to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The film has also received plenty of scrutinies.
Historian David Reynolds has been critical of the film’s regressive depiction of race, writing:
“The white women are elegant, their menfolk are noble or at least dashing. And, in the background, the black slaves are mostly dutiful and content, clearly incapable of an independent existence.”
Starting in 1972, the Atlanta Historical Society started to dispel the myths of the movie with a series of exhibits that exposed the film’s stereotyping of black slaves as the “happy darky.”
The criticism stretches pretty far and wide on this, calling the film everything from social propaganda to race revisionism.
Keep in mind these are only just the racial issues, as I’ve hardly touched the topic of the film’s depiction of rape and the Lost Cause Confederacy nonsense. And if you think this flowery depiction of the Confederacy was just an element of the era when the film was made, I dare you to say that after watching 2003’s Gods & Generals, a Civil War epic that is practically a love letter to the Confederacy which notes that slavery was only a minor footnote on the South’s path to glory. Yeah, I hate this movie.
What needs to be stressed is that none of this is being stated as a means of censoring the film or even removing it from existence. That has not been asked prior and it’s not what was being asked when John Ridley wrote his op-ed. He even clarified what he wants to happen to the film that launched this move by HBO Max, stating:
“Let me be real clear: I don’t believe in censorship. I don’t think “Gone With the Wind” should be relegated to a vault in Burbank. I would just ask, after a respectful amount of time has passed, that the film be re-introduced to the HBO Max platform along with other films that give a more broad-based and complete picture of what slavery and the Confederacy truly were. Or, perhaps it could be paired with conversations about narratives and why it’s important to have many voices sharing stories from different perspectives rather than merely those reinforcing the views of the prevailing culture.”
When news broke of HBO Max temporarily pulling Gone With The Wind based on Ridley’s suggestion, some gave the knee-jerk response of “oh, so I guess they’re going to pull Broken Saddles next, huh?” Ugh.
Look, there’s an absolutely clear distinction between Gone With The Wind and Blazing Saddles. Gone With The Wind romanticizes the plantation slavery era or at the very least gives it an innocence whereas Blazing Saddles satirizes it with a clearly telegraphed anti-racism bent. The hero of Blazing Saddles is the slick-talking African-American slave-turned-law-enforcer and the villain is the clumsy and short-fused racist. There’s a reason why you don’t see as many think pieces on the controversial nature of Blazing Saddles because its stance on slavery and racism are boldly pronounced. I assure you the screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave is knowing enough of the difference.
Gone With The Wind is not being called into question because it merely HAS slavery elements but for HOW they are presented. The argument for Blazing Saddles being as provocative is a really weak whataboutism to avoid talking about the real issues of Gone With The Wind. Nobody is talking about censoring either movie and derailing the conversation to such platitudes is not going to accomplish anything.
I can understand why someone would like Gone With The Wind. It has some strong performances, it’s immaculately shot, and it’s bursting with melodrama most spicy. But if Gone With The Wind is considered a classic and an important film, then we should be able to discuss it past mere praises of technical expertise, era apologia, ad populum, and accolade acclaim. It’s also not helpful nor insightful to write off complaints about its depictions of race and history with crusty canards of stuffy political correctness. Because this questioning of the film’s historical troubles of race and slavery is not new. They’ve always been present since the film’s very release and pretending that this controversy is only a recent wave of overreaction displays just how little others have looked into this film and its history.
So let’s confirm what didn’t happen here:
HBO Max did NOT ban Gone With The Wind from ever returning to the service.
Gone With The Wind was NOT being censored or edited.
Gone With The Wind was NOT being removed from home video circulation.
Since this announcement, HBO Max has added Gone With The Wind back to its service with two additional videos that discuss its troubling historical context. The first video is hosted by Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart and the second an hour-long panel moderated by author and historian Donald Bogle, previously recorded in 2019.
Nobody was calling for Gone With The Wind to be erased from cinema history.
All that’s being asked is that a bigger conversation is had about the film past just slapping the film on a streaming service that includes Sesame Street and Looney Tunes, both of which have dated elements that have been addressed with disclaimers. We should be able to converse about classic cinema on a more critical level beyond blind praise or scoffing at any negative criticism as PC bombardment.
Saying “it was a different time” is not at all the conversation kill-shot the apologists think it is. We need to be able to better discuss this film without such handwaves. And if that discussion on the film’s flowery depiction of the confederacy, racism, and slavery is one you don’t want to acknowledge or it makes you uncomfortable, well…
Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.