It’s an easy call to say our cities shouldn’t be full of laudatory monuments to people who betrayed the United States in defense of a virulently racist system. But how we deal with a complex, sweeping work such as “Gone With the Wind” raises more difficult questions about how to engage with valuable ideas in troubling art, and how to preserve historical artifacts that themselves seek to whitewash history.
The idea that “Gone With the Wind” is offensive to African Americans is not a recent development. Even by the standards of the era in which it was made — the novel was published in 1936 — observers saw novelist Margaret Mitchell’s depictions of her black characters as heavily stereotypical and potentially demeaning. As Jill Watts chronicled in her excellent biography of Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in the movie, black newspapers criticized David O. Selznick’s decision to option Mitchell’s novel. NAACP executive secretary Walter White, who had also protested D.W. Griffith’s cinematic makeover of the Ku Klux Klan, “The Birth of a Nation,” pushed Selznick to hire black consultants for the film, and to read W.E.B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction,” which debunks more sentimental ideas about the end of the Civil War.
Racist language remained in the movie, which opened in 1939. Many of the black characters in the film are defined in broad, sometimes demeaning strokes, from the loyalty and dependence of former valet Pork (Oscar Polk) to the hysteria and dishonesty of a young slave named Prissy (Butterfly McQueen). And though McDaniel won an Academy Award for her work in “Gone With the Wind” — the first African American to take home an Oscar — even her performance couldn’t wholly transcend the trope of a loyal slave who rejects freedom and prefers to serve her former owners.
Because of those factors and its narrow view of the Civil War and Reconstruction, “Gone With the Wind” may not be the right fit for a film series intended to “entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves.” It certainly shouldn’t stand in as the consensus view of the era. If the Orpheum Theatre, or any other community-minded institution, wanted to use the film to spark a discussion about race and historical memory, it would have to add a lot of additional context and alternate perspectives. That’s a lot to tack on to a film that already runs three hours and 58 minutes long.
But just because it’s not educational television doesn’t mean that “Gone With the Wind” should be shunned entirely, just as the Confederate statues that are coming down around the country should be preserved and curated, not destroyed. Both types of period pieces are valuable historical artifacts, not of the events and people they portray, but of previous generations of Americans’ efforts to figure out how they feel about the Civil War.
You don’t look at a statue of Robert E. Lee to treat it like documentary evidence of his supposed nobility or military prowess. You look at it to think about why starting in the 1890s so many Americans were invested in the mental contortions required to see Lee as decent and ultimately a patriot, despite the fact that he went to war against the United States to protect slavery. In the same way, you don’t watch “Gone With the Wind” for a serious analysis of how the American South transitioned to a free-labor economy. You watch it to understand why so many Americans in the 1930s responded to a character such as Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), who was alternately drawn to and repulsed by the slave-owning society in which she grew up.
The truth is, there’s more to “Gone With the Wind” than its stereotypes. I sympathize with any viewer who simply can’t make it past the depictions of black characters, or a subplot about the Klan. I understand how tired those tropes and stories are. For those who can make it past those depictions, though, “Gone With the Wind” casts a more gimlet eye on the Confederacy than it often gets credit for.
What makes Scarlett an iconic heroine is not that she unquestioningly embraces the perspectives of her slave-holding class during the war or the Lost Cause mythology that congeals after it, but that she sees the hypocrisy and self-deception that animate her peers. What makes Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) an appealing romantic hero is that for much of the film, he encourages Scarlett’s rebellion from these ideals when everyone else encourages her to conform to them. The climax of the movie comes when Scarlett recognizes that she never really loved Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard), the dreamy but fundamentally weak product of the Southern slavocracy.
This is the essential difference between Confederate monuments and “Gone With the Wind.” Monuments to Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson and other Confederate generals are an effort to turn convenient illusion into concrete reality. “Gone With the Wind” acknowledges what some people might find beautiful about that dream, while arguing that real courage is not in succumbing to slumber, but in waking up from a fantasy.