Ashley: “Oh, the lazy days, the warm, still country twilights … the high, soft Negro laughter from the quarters, the golden warmth and security of those days.”
“God forgive us, but ours is a monstrous system, and wrong and iniquity.” —Richmond slaveholder Mary Chesnut on Southern society and slavery, March 1861
HBO Max has saved us all from the injustice of Gone with the Wind being unavailable on the new service, thus ensuring that an important part of film history will remain accessible. (That is, in one additional place besides the numerous others where it’s already available on demand for anybody with an internet connection and a few bucks.) After briefly pulling it over concerns about its undeniable, inherent racism, the streaming service has added the film back with a brief note at the beginning by film historian Jacqueline Stewart putting into context the movie as, as she says: “a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past.”
The furor over this movie and the duty an American’s eyeballs have toward it has been framed by some as malicious revisionism, another excess of our current “cancel culture.” (It’s not.)
Viewing it through the lens of America in 2020, Gone with the Wind is still one of the most important films the United States has ever produced. It is a lavishly made, iconic movie, the exemplar of the Hollywood studio system’s Golden Age. It is among the longest movies Hollywood has ever put into wide release. It is the first film ever to win an Academy Award for a Black woman. It is a blithe celebration of America’s oldest pathology (which is racism) and, for some viewers, to watch it is to spend four hours in an alternate dimension.
People are having conniptions over this film somehow being cancelled or censored. Au contraire: Everyone should watch it.
After beginning with a title card lamenting the passing of slavery, the film follows a young Southern belle, Katie Scarlett O’Hara. She wishes fervently to give her hand in marriage to the gentlemanly and gallant Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), but she’s also drawn to the scoundrel Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). Rhett’s two broad categories of dialogue are bluntly telling Southerners that they are going to lose the Civil War and innuendo about what he’d like to do Scarlett. Anybody who is not Team Rhett is a cop.
The film follows Scarlett as she witnesses the Civil War explode across Georgia, drags her plantation up from the ashes of the Southern defeat, and tries to survive Reconstruction through a succession of unhappy marriages. It’s a love story about longing, about fate dragging people apart, about nostalgia for a bygone era, and about how great slavery was, which it stops to remind the viewer about every few minutes.
Mammy (Hattie McDaniel) and the other slaves fawn over Scarlett and their other masters, have no ambitions, and are often depicted as simple-minded. It’s the inescapable sentiment of the entire movie, underlying everything. Slavery was a fine, warm, fuzzy time, an Arthurian ideal, too beautiful a thing for our modern world.
One can argue the story is not really about that. It is about a woman who only knows what she had once she’s lost it, whose shrewdness and determination ensure her survival even as they doom her to being alone forever. It’s just that the story can’t help but also be about its raging subtext, about the myth of benevolent patriarchy, about the Lost Cause, about beautifying one of the ugliest episodes of history. Scarlett slaps and berates her slaves, whines about picking cotton by hand once those Northern aggressors take her slaves from her, bemoans that she must use underpaid white prison labor to run her mill when she remembers a time she could just use Black slaves instead.
The movie is four-hours long and filled with moments like this. Yet these moments are exactly why it’s still essential viewing.
More than just being a really sensational book or movie, one could argue that this is one of the most popular stories in modern American fiction. The source material of the story is the 1936 novel of the same title by Margaret Mitchell, a runaway hit when it first came out and, as of a 2014 poll, America’s second-favorite book behind the Bible. (That same year, the same pollster found that the movie adaptation was America’s favorite movie, with Star Wars coming in second.) There is a dedicated GWTW fandom, calling themselves “Windies,” like Star Trek fans are Trekkies. When you adjust for inflation, the movie remains the highest-grossing film of all time.
People are giving this movie a hard time in 2020 over its depiction of a painful and shameful time in our country’s history, but it’s important to remember that they were also giving it a hard time before it even came out in 1939. Shortly after acquiring the rights to adapt the 1,000-page novel, producer David O. Selznick assured the NAACP that he was “sensitive to the feelings of minority peoples.”
The reception of the film as a major event happened, at least in part, because Selznick and the other filmmakers put out a nationwide casting call to gin up interest in it, focusing in particular on the casting of Scarlett. Important as Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win for portraying Mammy was, it’s also inextricable from the galling discrimination the Black cast members faced when the film came out. McDaniel and her Black costars were not allowed to attend the premiere of the movie they starred in, since it first screened in Atlanta while Jim Crow segregation laws were still in effect.
The secretary of the NAACP at the time, Walter White, said that, “Whatever sentiment there was in the South for federal anti-lynch law evaporated during the Gone with the Wind vogue.” Black dramatist and filmmaker Carlton Moss wrote an open letter of rebuttal to Selznick, in which he called the film a sneakier attack on Black Americans than the much louder and prouder Birth of a Nation had been, calling GWTW “Sugar-smeared and blurred by a boresome Hollywood love story and under the guise of presenting the South as it is in the ‘eyes of the Southerners,’ … a nostalgic plea for sympathy for a still living cause of Southern reaction.”
Incidentally, Moss would go on to fight for his own corner of the American narrative, producing the 1943 documentary/propaganda piece The Negro Soldier, remembered as a major event in Black film history. Meant to build support for integration of the armed forces, the call to arms against the Axis powers painted oft-ignored Black soldiers as essential to America’s victories in war since the Revolution.
If we discuss Gone with the Wind as being a victim of “cancel culture” (and, again, it’s not), we should also talk about what sort of culture made Moss a notable and influential Black filmmaker whose films don’t always show up on IMDB and who was never handed a massive budget with hundreds of extras and a nationwide sensation of a casting call. We should think well on why his stories are a comparative footnote to history while a paean to slaveholding society is an inescapable, four-hour-long entry in classic film canon.
Gone With the Wind is truly essential viewing, and we should be watching it. We should also be talking about the real reasons why we’re watching it, and what other stories we’ll never have the chance to watch.
Kenneth Lowe should be kissed often, and by someone who knows how. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.