Film, Arts & Entertainment



Posted November 2, 2017 by qotsm in Film

More than any American film about the Civil War, Gone With the Wind reveals the cunning skill with which white supremacy creates its own myths.

The 1939 film was adapted from the Pulitzer Prize winning 1936 novel of the same name written by Margaret Mitchell. While both the book and film received critical acclaim, they were not without their critics and a fair share of controversy. Still to this day, claiming the title of the top grossing, most successful movie of all time, it had a dark side as well. Even now, the film triggers both devotion and disdain. You see, although Gone With the Wind was an epic about a post civil war south and its’ effects, it was released at the same time America was in the midst of the stock market crash, and the onset of the Great Depression. For those who need to brush up on their history, the 1930s was a decade of entrenched racism, and while African-Americans struggled against Jim Crow, some say Gone With the Wind romanticized everything they were fighting against.

Black newspapers threatened to boycott the movie calling it “anti-Negro propaganda”, and accused filmmaker David O. Selznick of glorifying slavery. Under pressure, he removed the “N-word” and any direct reference to the Ku Klux Clan from the film.

Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, became the first black actor to win an Academy Award for her performance. Some say her character is the soul and guiding force behind the film. However, it is impossible to overlook the fact that she brings to life one of the most troublesome and pervasive stereotypes that has plagued black women since slavery. How ironic that the night McDaniel won the Oscar for her role, she was forced to sit in the back of the room, next to the kitchen. In defense of her critics, she is said to have famously retorted when then NAACP head Walter White admonished her, “I would rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one.”

Black commentators criticized the film for its depiction of black people and its glorification of slavery. Carlton Moss, a black dramatist, complained in an open letter that whereas The Birth of a Nation was a “frontal attack on American history and the Negro people”, Gone With the Wind was a “rear attack on the same”.

It has always been as beloved as it has been reviled and criticized, and in the wake of the Charlottesville riots and larger conversations on race, it once again finds itself at the center of controversy. Recently, a Memphis, Tennessee, theater, the Orpheum, pulled a screening of the film, citing community input and “insensitivity.” This quickly launched numerous discussions about the film’s place within Hollywood history, reminding us of old wounds yet to heal and of its racial insensitivity.

Whether you see it as romantic or racist, good or bad, like most things dissected and picked apart, there are both negatives and positives to consider when reflecting upon this film. That was a different time, and this is a different America…or is it? Reflect upon that for a moment.

It has been said that more than any American film about the Civil War, Gone With the Wind illustrates the cunning skill with which white America creates its own myths. It is a picture perfect example of the American mythology that over centuries and generations has been built around slavery. Conversely, if Gone With the Wind was relegated to the past, perhaps it would make it easier for us to forget how indicative it is of our present. Seen through an extremely wide angle lens, this film becomes a way to look at and clearly see how we spin fables and fairytales from an obviously obstructed view of our past to re-imagine our present.

In a time when we are forced to re-examine the meaning and purpose of the Civil War and all its’ implications, we have to wonder if we have really come as far as we’d like to think we have as a country. In actuality, 1936 and 2017 are that far apart in many aspects. Still, there is the erroneous perception that Hollywood is on the fast path to perpetual progress. The Hollywood of today is seemingly somehow more objective and politically correct than Hollywood of yester year. Case in point:  Gone With the Wind vs. the Steve McQueen critically acclaimed and Oscar awarded 2013 film 12 Years a Slave.

Frank Rich noted in a New York Magazine feature from 2013:

“… film critics as different as those of the Times, the New York Post, and Hollywood Life felt they had to address the continued sway of Gone With the Wind in their raves of 12 Years a Slave. All offered some variation on the thesis that the movie was, at long last, an antidote to (as Manohla Dargis put it) ‘all the fiddle-dee-dee’ of its nearly 75-year-old predecessor, the film that was supposed to have been trampled into the dust by Roots more than a generation ago. Maybe, but tomorrow is always another day at Tara, and it’s probably wishful thinking that 12 Years a Slave will consign Mitchell’s ­magnolia-scented view of the South to oblivion any more than the far more widely disseminated Roots did.”

An op-ed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune recently stated: “In the kindest reading, ‘Gone With the Wind’ is romanticized fiction. In a more realistic assessment, it is nothing but “Lost Cause” Confederate propaganda. If it’s history you are looking for, I suggest ‘12 Years A Slave,’ the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. […] That is history. That is truth.”

Gone With the Wind is fantasy and pure fodder for the American soul of the time in which it was written. It exists purely based upon an entire race of people’s subjugation. As America wrestles with its’ past to hopefully better navigate its’ future, the lines continue to be blurred between what is fact and what is fiction. American cinema like American history changes depending upon who is telling the story. We unrealistically romanticize the south and the Civil War era as some mythical, wonderful time in a land far, far away. Erroneously, history has painted a picture of a place where uncle Remus is dancing and singing happily through lily white cotton fields. The narrative has been bent, twisted and broken to suit the storyteller. It’s been written then re-written as many times necessary to erase the scars and the ugly truth of our scandalous past. Unfortunately, far too many of us simply don’t give a damn!

Below is a video essay from 2014, that inter-splices scenes from Gone With the Wind and 12 Years a Slave to juxtapose the dishonesty of one, and the gut wrenching truth of the other.

Darryl Rembert

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