Want to know one of my secrets about Gone With The Wind? Okay…here goes: I really, really want to see it on a movie theater screen. Because I choose to see it as art, not a history lesson. (And now in the eyes of some readers—to quote Scarlett and Rhett—“After this dance, my reputation will be gone forever.” “With enough courage, you can do without a reputation.”)
Can we see Gone With The Wind as art? What does that mean? And what does that mean if we have historical reservations or uncomfortable feelings with certain scenes? These are a few of the questions we need to grapple with, and I’ve seen a variety of answers in the last few weeks.
For tonight’s ending thoughts, though:
Question 1: what is art?
Question 2: does context help us appreciate and keep art?
Three years ago another ECW author wrote about history and art: “I would argue that a work of art that finds new meaning and new audiences over time meets one of the criteria for “great” art. That’s why we keep lining up to look at the Mona Lisa, why we keep reading Shakespeare, and why we keep grooving to Louis Armstrong…” Is that why we have kept lining up or switching channels to Gone With The Wind for 80 years?
Is film art? Is theater art? I think so. Serious critics think so, too.
So, should we see Gone With The Wind as art? I argue: yes. A film that wins eight Academy Awards makes us take notice. It’s still the highest grossing film of all time (when adjusted for inflation). And it’s in the top 100 most historic films of all time (historic in the sense of movie history).
Now, just because something is art doesn’t mean it should be left running wild and unexplained in society and pop-culture. But, if Gone With The Wind stays as cultural reference or work of cinematic art, why shouldn’t it have a label? A proverbial museum sign? Something that explains a little about the era when it was made and why it gives this version of Civil War “history” mixed with a tumultuous love story.
Just because something is or can be acknowledged as art, does not mean it does not need to be explained. Personally, I think that’s where we are at with Gone With The Wind. It might be a good thing to see it as art that needs to be explained in context. Art without explanation can quickly become a propaganda piece.
Is Gone With The Wind the so-called “hill to die on”? How much conflict should be raised about this effort to contextualize the movie?
In a spirit of kindness and boldness, I offer a few suggestions for the future weeks and months:
First, I think the storm will pass. There is a lot of loud discussion at the moment as this movie trends. (However, the book was back on Amazon’s top-seller list in the last couple weeks, according to some reports.)
Second, HBO Max has said the movie will come back to their listings with some sort of “disclaimer” or contextualization attempt. Let’s wait and see if that happens. As previously suggested, I think some context might be a good thing. It would be helpful to make sure viewers realized this is not a documentary and not everything in it is an accurate depiction of the Civil War or Reconstruction South.
Third, if the case can be made that Gone With The Wind is art—albeit flawed history—perhaps it is easier to make a cause to keep it around. As a teaching tool for Civil War memory. About Civil War historiography.
Fourth, perhaps there should be more discussion about how to find appropriate ways to remember the courage of African-American entertainers in early Hollywood and show business. If we erase their work, will it be harder to have a discussion about what they accomplished and what they endured in a segregated, racist system? The accomplishments should not be used a means of justification for what they endured, but rather as an understanding of the ceilings they shattered and the courage they showed in difficult and unequal situations.
Fifth, and finally, is Gone With The Wind where historians make their stand? Everyone will answer this question differently. That’s okay. But I ask: is a 20th Century depiction of the 1860’s, where Civil War historians and history buffs need to concentrate their arguments and energies? I realize there is a lot of irony in that question since I just spent 5 days presenting details and arguments about the movie. (I started writing and then just got “blown away” into a long series. Oops!).
In the end, though, my personal conclusion is: Frankly, my dear, let’s get back to the 1860’s history and leave the 20th Century novel and movie as pieces of antiquated literature and cinematic art, keeping them around with some new contextual references. As we continue to pursue studies of primary sources in the antebellum, war, and reconstruction and seek a deeper understanding of what happened and how it has been influenced by memory, Gone With The Wind will hopefully fade as a historical reference for the Civil War and be seen as a moment of cinema history with its own set of complexities, struggles, and triumphs.
BREAKING NEWS: HBO Max has returned Gone Withe Wind to their streaming list. Here’s the report and a link to the new introduction. (Just saw it as I was publishing the blog post this evening.)