Unsurprisingly, HBO Max’s decision was immediately misrepresented for maximum outrage, with alarmist headlines blaring that the film had been “pulled” and critics taking the company to task for giving in to the most censorious Torquemadas of the American left. Meanwhile, “Gone With the Wind” was still available on a wide variety of platforms, and HBO Max suggested the film could be returned to their rotation in less than a week, with an added introduction from a scholar of African American studies.
But this thoughtful, measured response is precisely what was called for by Ridley, who wrote the 2013 historical drama “12 Years a Slave.” Like most film lovers, he didn’t want “Gone With the Wind” shut away “in a vault somewhere in Burbank.” Rather, he was calling for added context, and an acknowledgment that the images, assumptions and values embedded in a moonlight-and-magnolias epic that for decades reigned supreme as America’s favorite blockbuster should no longer be blithely accepted as “just a movie.”
It’s an argument that many historians, critics and filmgoers have been making for a long time — myself included. In 2017, a Memphis theater announced it would cancel its annual screening of “Gone With the Wind” the following year, after receiving complaints from some audience members. The 2017 screening took place right before a march by white supremacists in Charlottesville led activists around the country to call for the removal of statues honoring Confederate leaders.
As I wrote at the time, those statues weren’t great art — they were propagandistic kitsch. But “Gone With the Wind” couldn’t be dismissed as easily. Yes, it’s “a soapy, hysterically pitched melodrama drenched in sentimentalism and Old South cant” that helped perpetuate a gauzy Lost Cause myth that has romanticized oppression and valorized traitors for generations. But it’s also “a genuine work of art whose production design, staging and camera work are worth admiration and study, even while keeping the film’s most toxic properties in mind.”
I also suggested more context when encountering contradictory and even deeply offensive works of art: “What if every repertory presentation of [‘Gone With the Wind’] could be accompanied by conversations with historians, critics, activists?” I wrote. “What if we re-sited [it] away from commercial multiplexes and into libraries, museums, cinematheques? What if we dared to contend honestly with our most shameful and enduring cultural legacies rather than wishing them away or erasing them outright?”
Of course, Ridley called for much the same thing, but we can stipulate that an Oscar-winning screenwriter will always get faster action than a lowly, ink-stained wretch. And his challenge to HBO Max came at a time of sustained public protest regarding the racism baked into American institutions — protest that once might have been met with hand-wringing and happy talk but now actually seems to be leading to concrete change, whether in the form of local police reform or canceling the so-called reality show “Cops.”
“Gone With the Wind,” let it be said again, isn’t canceled. It’s simply being reframed. Viewers who love the movie can still see it, and will be able to see it again on HBO Max — with value added that promises to enhance their appreciation rather than ruin it. Those of us with more complicated feelings can feel gratified that, in one small corner of the movie universe at least, its most troubling contradictions might be confronted with honesty and nuance.
Perhaps most encouraging, filmgoers who have yet to discover the film will benefit from a far richer historical understanding with which to watch it than those of us who’ve gone before. To quote “Gone With the Wind’s” own Scarlett O’Hara: “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
It might even be a better one.