Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 1)

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:

  1. What would I tell the kids?
  2. Hattie McDaniel
  3. Segregation in the 1930’s and the real rebels in Hollywood on GWTW’s sets
  4. Implied and imprinted feelings
  5. 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…

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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17 Responses to Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 1)

  1. 1) Who would use a fictional movie as a historical teaching tool? I’d never consider “Star Wars” as history and no one would have to explain to me that it’s NOT historical fact. Would you go through the movie “Gettysburg” with a fine tooth comb for depictions of injustice or consider it a teaching tool for CW history? 2) No mention about the book that the movie is based on! Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind” book sold one million copies in its first six months and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1937. The last pages of the manuscript (which Mitchell actually wrote first) are framed on the wall at the Atlanta History Center. My grandfather repeatedly told me it was the greatest film of his generation. 3) Your quote – “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?” I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I trust that future generations can read a book, watch a movie and come to reasonable conclusion themselves – w/o our “guidance” as to injustice or inequalities. We are still a long way from the moral pinnacle of humanity. It’s presumptuous that we should consider ourselves the beacon for future generations. If anything, future generations will be as dismissive as you are of the opinions/lifestyles of people that lived long ago.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and concerns. Certainly, I hope future generations will see Gone With The Wind as literature or cinema art and evaluate and understand it from that perspective. Part of my concern stems from some newscasters and other public figures who have given the impression that they view GWTW on the level of a historically-accurate documentary to learn about the Civil War.

  2. slimtimm says:

    Randell
    I believe you are dismissing too lightly the positive influence, and enlightenment, each generation can shed on historical interpretation for those following. Thanks Sarah, look forward to your next intallment.

  3. Joe Jurdana says:

    Well well. This country failed with Prohibition but now people with intolerant attitudes want to prohibit Gone With The Wind. I wonder what the Library of Congress will say?

  4. Douglas Pauly says:

    To me, it’s “Amos and Andy” all over again. The only way this crap stops if it one endeavors to “Do unto them what they will do to you”. Amos and Andy were beloved characters. Their COMEDY helped dispel some aspects of stereotypes that some white people held. Tell me, what is the ‘woke’ perspective of, say, “Coming to America” (that barbershop scene sure portrayed Eddie Murphy in an often unflattering light, did it not?), or Whoopie and Oprah’s characters, among others, in the “Color Purple”? If the idiots at HBOMax are going to remove it, then claim they will bring it back with ‘proper context’ and other subjective (and no doubt slanted) criteria applied to it, it will no doubt be so sanitized and bastardized (sorry, I can’t think of a better term for what they appear to be doing!), as to defeat whatever ideal they hope to accomplish. Here is a suggestion: just put up a simple passage that says “Read up about the Civil War, including the lead up to it and the aftermath”. PERIOD.

    About that “do unto them…” bit I mentioned earlier, why can’t some among us, say, demand that all Spike Lee movies be targeted for banishment? He’s as racist as they get. I mean, fair is fair, right? Shouldn’t ALL racism and the racists engaged in such be addressed?

    One last thing here concerning ‘GWTW’. We know about the ‘firsts’ it is responsible for, in a black actress receiving her industry’s highest honor for her role. But concerning the role itself, did anyone notice how her character ran so many aspects of that plantation, and how dependent those white folks, especially the owners of it, were on her? To me she represents strength and perseverance and a real good heart that we can all learn from and be inspired by. But unfortunately, too many clowns call the shots these days in too many endeavors. Sad but true..

    • John Pryor says:

      Douglas, do you notice that it’s only when Scarlett begins to really see Mammy as an individual that she begins to grow up and mature? Their relationship crosses over racial lines to one of love and respect. Hattie McDaniel so deserved more serious mainstream roles.

      • Douglas Pauly says:

        Indeed John. I think that character is as beloved as Rhett Butler’s is.

  5. once again it has nothing to do with history , This is a political Marxist move to destroy, disrupt, and create conflict with in the country. If not so serious id be a childish,immature action . Its a dam old simple movie to be enjoyed and it was by thousands but now the powers who WANT to be are telling you it is a evil thing . Give me a break GROW UP . AMERICA WAKE UP .
    Thank you Sarah for a well written article and not afraid to take the bull by the horns .look forward to the next one P.S. . Thank God nothing in there about nascar .

  6. John Pryor says:

    What I find hilarious is the competing ideologies at play here. The obvious racial stereotypes in the film need no explanation to anyone who hasn’t been locked away in a cabinet for the last 70 or so years. If people want an excuse to get upset, they’ll get upset. How about all the urban stereotypes in car chase movies over the past decade, of the thugs are us variety? I find them as offensive. But Gone With the Wind is magnificent cinema, from soup to nuts. And as far as stereotypes, is there a more proto feminist movie anywhere? The strongest characters are all women. Melanie, Scarlett, Mammie, Ellen O’Hara, even Belle Watling and Mrs Meade. Who doesn’t get a chill when Scarlett swiftly dispatches one of Old Sparky Sherman’s bummers to the afterlife? Even the manly and roguish Rhett solves his problems by packing his bag and running away. So accept it for what it is. And pass the popcorn!

  7. Tim Kelly says:

    Great article Sarah. Looks like Fahrenheit 451 is coming! Sarah please let me know what books in the ECW series your going to memorizes and start on the others! Will figure out that hiding place later where we can freely dictate the books to people!

  8. I completely agree, Sarah. Thank you for articulating it so well. I look forward to the rest of the series 🙂

  9. Robert Anderson says:

    My grandfather was the associate editor of the Atlanta Constitution in the 1930s and a friend of Margaret “Peggy” Marsh Mitchell. She invited him to the premier and he took my mom who was 16 at the time. She had several stories of Hollywood celebrities that night and the razzle dazzle of the grand event .

    The one story that I will never forget was one she told about a small group of 90 year old plus Confederate veterans from the Old Soldier’s Home who were in attendance.

    There is a scene in the movie in the railroad yard where hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers lay. It was during that scene that one of these veterans rose to his feet and pointed to the screen and exclaimed” I was there, that’s where my brother died!”
    Powerfull stuff. Fiction or not , the producers captured enough realism to stir the memory of a man who saw it in real life back in 1864.

    Yes the story and characters are fictional but Mitchell researched the era extensively for 13 or 14 years while writing Gone With the Wind. In addition to the stories passed down by her parents who were born during reconstruction and her grand parents , aunts and uncles who lived through the war in Georgia, she interviewded countless others who experienced the war including several former slaves.

    We have a letter Mitchell wrote to my grand father thanking him for recommending that she interview some one he knew.
    Sure she was southern and wrote from that perspective…call it a “Jim Crow” ppint of view if you must, but I assure you her research was solid and detailed.

    There is historical value in this work, this best selling masterpiece.

    • M. J. Waters says:

      Very interesting side story Robert, thanks for this.

    • Sarah Kay Bierle says:

      Thanks for sharing that Robert! How interesting that your grandfather knew Margaret Mitchell.

      I agree that she put forth a sincere effort to do research, and with the information and sources she had available in Atlanta, she developed a stunning perspective and novel that is incredibly valuable for Civil War memory.

  10. Pingback: Gone With The Wind: Some Thoughts (Part 2) | Emerging Civil War

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