As statues of Confederate soldiers and officers come down around the country, whether at the hands of outraged citizens in North Carolina or in a quiet overnight operation in Baltimore, another monument to the era is tilting on its pedestal. A theater in Memphis has made national headlines after pulling Victor Fleming’s classic Civil War movie “Gone With the Wind” from its summer screening series and revitalizing decades-old charges about the movie’s depiction of African Americans.
It’s an easy call to say our cities shouldn’t be full of laudatory monuments to people who betrayed the United States in defense of a virulently racist system. But how we deal with a complex, sweeping work such as “Gone With the Wind” raises more difficult questions about how to engage with valuable ideas in troubling art, and how to preserve historical artifacts that themselves seek to whitewash history.
The idea that “Gone With the Wind” is offensive to African Americans is not a recent development. Even by the standards of the era in which it was made — the novel was published in 1936 — observers saw novelist Margaret Mitchell’s depictions of her black characters as heavily stereotypical and potentially demeaning.