Like any historical artifact, “Gone With the Wind” is, indeed, a “product of its time,” but it would be misguided to imagine that David Selznick’s blockbuster did not, in its own time, provoke considerable controversy. More than a Hollywood spectacle, the film amplified a racist political message that intertwined ideas about the antebellum South into the New Deal politics of its day, making its message even more potent, dangerous and enduring.
The story of the “Gone With the Wind” movie begins, of course, with the novel that inspired it. Published in 1936, Margaret Mitchell’s best-selling book offered a classic “Lost Cause” tale of crushed but resilient white Southerners, devoted black slaves and evil-minded Yankees. It traded heavily in racist descriptions and plot lines, from the “black apes” committing “outrages on women” to Mitchell’s reference to the character Mammy, her face “puckered in the sad bewilderment of an old ape.”
Ku Kluxers are the book’s heroes, helping restore order in the wake of racial chaos.
Hailed, almost instantaneously, as a modern classic by critics in the North and South, Mitchell’s book sold 1 million copies in its first six months. It remained at the top of the bestseller list for the next two years and attracted the attention of Hollywood producers. One month after publication, Mitchell sold the movie rights for $50,000 — nearly $1 million in today’s dollars — to Selznick International. Thanks to a persistent public relations campaign, excitement about the film remained high for the next three years until its opening, in a star-studded, whites-only extravaganza, in Atlanta in December 1939.
The publicity campaign, as well as eye-popping sets and lush costuming, contributed to the film’s huge popularity, not to mention its big box-office revenue. But it was the story of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara’s romance, central to both book and film, that likely held the key to captivating readers and moviegoers. Fans clamored for Mitchell to write a sequel so they might learn if Rhett and Scarlett ever reunited. The movie’s romantic power even propelled one Northern school, Boston University, to name its Boston terrier mascot Rhett, because “no one loves Scarlett” — the school’s official color — “more than Rhett.”
But it wasn’t only romance that drew attention to the book and the film. It also offered an empathetic message that appealed to white Americans suffering through the worst economic downturn in U.S. history. Women readers and viewers, especially, felt a kinship with Scarlett, whose dramatic personal and economic losses resonated with their own circumstances. Scarlett, wrote one Iowa fan, “wanted only what so many of us want now. Material security for our families that life may hold something [more] but the endless drudgery of a bare existence.”
Yet black Americans and also some sympathetic whites felt differently. They recognized how much the movie, and the book before it, buttressed a racist history that romanticized slavery and demonized black political participation.
Mitchell’s novel, said critic George Schuyler, writing in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine, “spurts the familiar southern white venom against Negroes and Yankees” while promoting the “old moss-grown falsehood” about the sexual threat black men posed to white women. In the end, Schuyler said, the book presents “an effective argument against according the Negro his citizenship rights and privileges and sings Hallelujah for white supremacy.”
A Pittsburgh civil rights group told producer David Selznick that Mitchell’s book was “a glorification of the old rotten system of slavery, propaganda for race-hatreds and bigotry, and incitement of lynching.” And a black newspaper in Los Angeles directly connected the film to the contemporaneous racial hatred happening in Nazi Germany with the headline, “Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better.”
This type of pushback did, in fact, encourage Selznick to soft-peddle some of the book’s racism. He eliminated the n-word from the film’s dialogue, removed explicit reference to the Klan and replaced Scarlett’s black attacker with a white man and a black accomplice. But Selznick was mostly interested in avoiding controversy, not challenging white supremacy.
Selznick might boast that his black characters were not vicious agitators — like those in that earlier racist classic, “Birth of a Nation” — but making black men and women less belligerent did not alter the overall message of white superiority and black incompetence. Watching the movie as a teenager, Malcolm X grasped the intense ridicule black people were being subjected to, especially in the scene when Scarlett’s slave Prissy has been caught for lying about her skills as a midwife. When the actress playing Prissy “went into her act,” he wrote, “I felt like crawling under a rug.”
Both the film and the book celebrated Southern white slaveholder superiority in a way that provided fodder for contemporary political debates and was used to reinforce a conservative, anti-New Deal message: to celebrate the right of white Southerners to challenge federal authority, both historically and in the present, and especially to defy any federal agenda that even hinted at racial justice.
When, in January 1940, Rep. Knute Hill (D-Wash.) spoke in opposition to the federal anti-lynching bill being debated in Congress, he referenced “Gone With the Wind.” Although Hill spoke specifically of Mitchell’s novel, he surely knew this would be a timely message, since the movie had just opened with massive publicity to popular acclaim. Hill praised the depiction of good Southern (white) men, men who had been unfairly punished by federal Reconstruction measures, just as good Southern white men in 1940 were being unfairly targeted by legislation that defined the lynching of African Americans as a federal crime.
A couple of months later, Sen. Josiah Bailey (D-N.C.) denounced any law that opened the door to federal interference in his state, whether on the question of voting or lynching. For Bailey, Selznick’s movie offered a handy point of reference. “That story,” Bailey said, “is not overdrawn.” Its depiction of violence and looting in the siege of Atlanta, he insisted, revealed the nightmare of “federal control.”
Looking back on the lost opportunities of this moment, NAACP leader Walter White is said to have summed up the problem like this: “Whatever sentiment there was in the South for a federal anti-lynch law evaporated during the Gone With the Wind vogue.”
“Gone With the Wind” reveals how a romanticization of slavery in the past translated into concrete actions to perpetuate its legacy in the present. Today, in 2020, when hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken to the streets to demand racial justice, and when the U.S. Senate is on the verge of finally passing a federal anti-lynching law, and when dozens of Confederate monuments have come down, maybe it is time to treat the film as the Confederate monument that it is, and take it down, too.