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A Memphis theater’s pulling of ‘Gone with the Wind’ viewed as ‘cultural cleansing’ by critics

A crowd walks past the Astor Theater in New York during the Dec. 19, 1939 Broadway premiere of “Gone With the Wind.” (AP)

A Memphis theater has ended its 34-year tradition of screening the 1939 Oscar-winning-film “Gone With the Wind” at least once a year. The Orpheum Theatre dropped the movie from its programming after several patrons complained about an Aug. 11 screening, saying the film was “racially insensitive,” USA Today reported.

“While title selections for the series are typically made in the spring of each year, the Orpheum has made this determination early in response to specific inquiries from patrons,” Brett Batterson, president of the Orpheum Theatre Group, said in a statement obtained by Entertainment Weekly.

“As an organization whose stated mission is to ‘entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,’ the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population,” Batterson added.

Taking inflation into account, the Civil War epic “Gone With the Wind” is the highest grossing film of all time, according to Box Office Mojo. Even so, its treatment of black characters — referred to as “darkies” throughout the film — has been at the center of an increasingly heated debate.

The movie follows the life of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), who grows up on a plantation and eventually falls in love with former blockade runner for the South Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). To many, the film depicts the Confederacy in a nostalgic, loving way while drawing its black characters in broad and demeaning stereotypes.

In 2015, film critic Lou Lumenick wrote that the film “buys heavily into the idea that the Civil War was a noble lost cause and casts Yankees and Yankee sympathizers as the villains, both during the war and during Reconstruction.” He suggested it should “go the way of the Confederate flag” and be phased out of American culture.

Outraged defenders of the movie, though, seemed to feel otherwise and quickly vocalized their objections. The loudest voice belonged to Fox News commentator and Memphis native Todd Starnes.

In two different tweets linking to a commentary he wrote on the theater’s decision, Starnes said, “Common sense has gone with the wind in my hometown of Memphis” and said the movie “has been done-in by a bunch of meddling, no-account, liberal Yankee carpetbaggers.”

“The cultural cleansing of my hometown has gone too far,” Starnes wrote on his blog, calling those who complained “culture jihadists.”

“And now our beloved film is gone with the wind — done in by a bunch of meddling, no-account thespian carpetbaggers,” he continued. “Many Memphians must be wondering what has come over this here town. To borrow a phrase from ‘Gone With the Wind,’ Liberals have come over it. Same as they’ve come over all of us.”

Starnes concluded:

“But there’s no use crying in our sweet tea, Southerners,” he wrote. “We must stand up to the scourge of the Yankee liberals. We must stand up and fight. In the words of Scarlett O’Hara, as God is my witness — we’re not gonna let them lick us.”

Some people who had seen the movie in Memphis agreed with Starnes.

“My grown daughter and I went together to see this movie during the summer screening 5 years ago. It is an Epic Movie that no one should miss on the big screen,” wrote Sherrye Britt, who said there was nothing racist about the movie. “Stop trying to rewrite history. The next thing you know they will ban To Kill a Mockingbird, Driving Ms Daisy, and other iconic movies.”

“I was fortunate enough to go and see GWTW last year at the Orpheum,” wrote Vickie Lewis. “I can say without a doubt that I will never give this theater my money again.”

“Shame on the Orpheum,” wrote Sherry Fullbright Fowler, who complained that the move was “helping” to destroy history.

But others, such as Erin Maher, supported the theater.

“Agree with this decision,” Maher wrote. “This is no time to be romanticizing the Confederacy and slave-owners. People who want to watch it can still watch it. They’re not burning the only print.”

For all the outrage, though, the Orpheum Theatre hasn’t backed down. Batterson told the Commercial Appeal this isn’t the first time the theater considered pulling the movie from its annual schedule, but the decision has finally been made.

“This is something that’s been questioned every year,” he said. “This is about the Orpheum wanting to be inclusive and welcoming to all of Memphis.”

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