The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I love ‘Gone With the Wind,’ because it reminds us that the South lost

The movie is a racist fantasy, but watching Scarlett O’Hara’s world burn is catharsis.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh dressed in character for their first day on the film “Gone With the Wind” in Los Angeles in 1939. (AP)
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This week, the streaming service HBO Max temporarily removed “Gone With the Wind” from its catalogue. Fear not: It will be back soon, with some sort of contextualizing note about the history of slavery and oppression in the American South. In the meantime, the movie is available for rent or purchase in all the other places it was available for rent or purchase last week; Megyn Kelly can still get her early-20th-century white supremacy content on Amazon. In fact, right after the announcement, online sales of the film rose sharply, both there and in the iTunes store. (Jeff Bezos, chief executive of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

I own a copy of “Gone With the Wind” on VHS. (Google it, millennials.) My mother used to watch it all the time. She would always point out that Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to win an Academy Award, for her portrayal of Mammy. But the real reason we watched the movie so often is that, for a long time, we had one “good” TV, and my mom likes romances. For her, “Gone With the Wind” is a live-action romance novel that uses the Civil War as scenery. At least I got out of the house before “Bridget Jones’s Diary” happened.

“Gone With the Wind” is also a perfect (if overlong) distillation of “Lost Cause” racist ideology. It promotes a fantasy of genteel antebellum civilization while minimizing or outright ignoring what it was built upon — that is, slavery. The main character, Scarlett O’Hara, is a cunning woman trying to keep her plantation and society alive, as war “robs” her of her father, various husbands and slaves. At least two of the black characters, Mammy and "Pork,” are — get this — slaves who have been freed but stay behind because they love the O’Haras so much. The movie is a grotesque trip into a past that never existed, but which some white people nevertheless think they’ve lost.

And I kind of love it. “Gone With the Wind” is one of the all-time “so bad, it’s good” movies. The acting is over-the-top, full of breathless dialogue and pregnant pauses. The character decisions are ludicrous. People faint. It’s also one of the best disaster movies ever made, because this time, the characters deserve the destruction.

The formula for a good disaster movie is simple: You set up the world, you wreck it, you watch survivors of the wreckage try to fight back or rebuild. “Gone With the Wind” has all of those elements, but (unintentionally) inverts them, such that a guy like me cheers on the disaster.

The first third of the movie sets up a disgusting, rotting society that needs to be destroyed. Oh, the moviemakers try to shuffle its monstrosity off-screen, out of sight, but I know it’s there. Enter Rhett Butler: He’s the guy in the disaster movie who knows that trouble is coming but can’t get anyone to listen. (Clark Gable plays that role wonderfully.)

Then just when I’m getting really sick of all these fainting white people, William Tecumseh Sherman shows up to burn their world to the ground. I love that part. I love when slavers get their due. They never even put Sherman on-screen: He’s only referred to in capital letters (“SHERMAN!”) overlaid upon billowing fire. But we do get to see Butler and O’Hara galloping through the streets of a burning Atlanta, which is every bit as satisfying as watching aliens blow up New York, if you’re rooting for the aliens. And later, when O’Hara returns to her burned-out plantation, we see her scratch and claw at the earth in search of root vegetables. She utters her famous line, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!” That scene is the best. I wish Thomas Jefferson had been alive to see it.

In the “survivors rebuild” act of the movie, the bad guys are supposedly the newcomer Northerners, whom the film portrays as war profiteers and corrupt cheats. But, again, I see them as mostly good guys. It makes me happy to see how Reconstruction makes things hard on the O’Haras. (There is a lot of complaining about “taxes.”) The movie doesn’t tell you this, but the “rebuilding” phase was when people like them started assembling what would come to be known as Jim Crow. Go Yankees, I always say. Make it as hard as possible for these people to rebuild their evil society.

All that said: The worst part of this movie, the scene that’s impossible to enjoy, is when Butler, in a drunken fit of jealousy, drags O’Hara to her bedroom against her will. Misty-eyed conservative commentators, waxing lyrical about this gem of American cinema, always seem to forget the part with the sexual assault. If I were invited to add modern context to “Gone With the Wind,” I’d put up a chyron during that scene that reads, “Marital Rape Is Also Rape.”

I’m sure almost every movie made in the 1930s has some kind of deeply problematic depiction. That case could probably be made for most movies made before 1980. Come to think of it, in 2018, the Academy gave an Oscar to “Green Book,” a movie about how Viggo Mortensen discovers the existence of racism — and which just so happens to reduce the life of Don Shirley to the role of “Jazz-Mammy.”

Most mainstream movies that touch on the history or legacy of racism are just stories white people tell themselves to make themselves feel better. Most of them are very bad. Some actively promote white supremacy; others merely pretend that the past wasn’t so terrible; and still others celebrate how a white person, with the help of a “magical Negro,” can learn to be better.

At least “Gone With the Wind” gives me a couple of chill scenes where the army of slavery is defeated, and white people have to pick their own damn cotton.

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