For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been thinking about how to write this. Gone With The Wind trended on the internet on June 10, 2020. “Great balls of fire!” and I made a face like Scarlett when she sees Rhett coming after the funeral and takes a swig of cologne; then I sent the news to Chris Mackowski. He fired back a text that said “That’s your department. Write something.” (Read that in a friendly tone.) I guess he’s right. I did spend a year seriously studying it so I could write one essay for the new Civil War & Pop Culture book.
In case you missed it, Gone With The Wind hit the trending list because HBO Max pulled it from their list of movies. Shortly after, news arrived on the scene that it will be returned sometime in the future with some disclaimers and maybe some historical context. In the meantime, some advocates are voicing their opinion that it should never come back. Many celebrities and newscasters have added their voices for keeping or archiving the 1939 Hollywood classic, and, of course, the discussion has turned political also. Why do I really need to add another voice?
Several points have come to mind:
- What would I tell the kids?
- Hattie McDaniel
- Segregation in the 1930’s and the real rebels in Hollywood on GWTW’s sets
- Implied and imprinted feelings
- What about cinema art?
Bear with me, please. This is going to be long, and I am going to break it into multiple posts. I’ve also intentionally written in a more conversational style than I usually use at ECW. I want to share some ideas, some citable facts, and do it in a friendly way.
Let’s start with Question 1: What would I tell the kids about Gone With The Wind?
I don’t mean the kids right now. I mean the children ten years from now, fifteen or twenty years from now who are reaching “movie-watching age.” I imagine my own kids or my nieces and nephews looking at the history books on my shelf. Maybe they pull off a certain volume from the Engaging the Civil War Series and find my name underneath a title of an essay about Gone With the Wind. “What’s this about?”
I imagine telling them the synopsis of the story. Telling them about the making of Hollywood epic. Maybe we’ll watch it first. Maybe I’ll tell them first. But one way or another, we will talk about the difference between a good story and history facts. I will make it clear that this is a story. It is not a documentary. We will talk about racism and how that is evident in some scenes. We will also talk about Hattie MacDaniel, the movie’s opening night in Atlanta, and what life was like in the 1930’s—for all Americans.
Yes, Gone With The Wind has some cringe-worthy, stereotypical, insensitive moments. (How’s that for packing in the negative adjectives?) But there was a memorable fight when the script writers and African American cast battled to reduce it to what actually made it to the screen. I’m not justifying, but there is a flip-side. What is offensive, and rightfully so, in the 21st Century was a ground-breaking reduction of the racism originally intended for that movie. (Yikes.)
If we cover up that racism that did make it to the screen, will it be harder to remember the injustices? What examples will we have of past mistakes? Is there a way that “entertainment” can be contextualized and used for educational discussions? (That seems to be the route that HBO will be taking with the movie.)
Here’s why I would watch Gone With The Wind with the children in my future life. I would want them to see a watered-down form of the racism that existed in early 20th Century and that got on the big screen in one of the most successful movies of all time. I want them to see it because I want them to question it and and see how memory affected facts of the antebellum, Civil War, and reconstruction eras.
How do we know something is wrong? Something or someone tells us, and examples can be the best teachers. Used properly, Gone With The Wind could be a very effective way to look at the “happy plantation myth,” Lost Cause ideas in early 20th Century pop-culture, and how the Reconstruction was remembered and interpreted for a long time. (Keith Harris, a teacher in Los Angeles and host of the Rogue Historian podcast, has been using GWTW as a teaching tool on those points for years and sparked very open discussions with his high-school students.) I strongly believe that Gone With The Wind should not be used to teach Civil War history, but it can be used to teach historiography in a very powerful way.
In case you don’t read the other posts in my long-winded dissertation on the blog…I am in favor of keeping Gone With The Wind around. (Read the rest of this paragraph, please.) Yes, contextualize it if you want on streaming services. Add links to some scholarly, cited articles. Stop romanticizing the “romantic” film. Stop seeing it as history and see it as a story. See it as cinematic art. But, it is my opinion, that if we shove this film into the dark recesses of the past, we lose a valuable—albeit painful snapshot—of how the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Black History was portrayed and interpreted in the 1930’s. And we would lose an opportunity to teach and discuss. If we do not teach and discuss the awful and uncomfortable moments, how can we help the next generations recognize the subtle or blatant injustices and inequalities? And will it be easier to pretend they didn’t happen?
If we forget those injustices and inequalities by removing an uncomfortable piece of big screen art, do we also risk losing a link to the history of the men and women who endured and battled against those injustices and the intense racism? Does their courage deserve a memory? I’ll explore that idea next with a look at Hattie McDaniel’s life and her role in the 1939 film.
To be continued…