Happy birthday, Hattie McDaniel. HBO Max is making news today for pulling Gone With the Wind from its library of movies available for streaming.
Gone With the Wind (GWTW) is an epic American classic. It is the story of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction. The movie was made in 1939 and is now being held to 2020 standards. On Monday, writer-director John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) called for HBO Max to remove the film in an op-ed in the L.A. Times. He spoke to the depiction of slavery and the use of stereotypes.
“It doesn’t just ‘fall short’ with regard to representation. It is a film that glorifies the antebellum south. It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”
It is a film that, as part of the narrative of the “Lost Cause,” romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the “right” to own, sell and buy human beings.
Recent current events like the death of George Floyd have made this an issue. Yes, GWTW romanticizes the antebellum south. It was a huge box office success, the highest-grossing film adjusted for inflation. And it won eight Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress. Hattie McDaniel won, making her the first African-American actor to win an Oscar. It also received Oscars for Best Picture; Best Director; Best Actress in a Leading Role; Best Writing, Screenplay; Best Cinematography, Color; Best Film Editing and Best Art Direction.
It took the film’s producer, David O. Selznick speaking up for her to get her an invitation to the movie’s premiere in Los Angeles, but not in Atlanta. This move by HBO Max is not the first time that controversy has arisen over the movie.
Emory University film studies professor Matthew Bernstein has conducted extensive research into the archives of the film’s producer, David O. Selznick. His findings illustrate some of Selznick’s concerns with the city’s treatment of the film’s black stars at the Dec. 15, 1939 premiere.
“Producer David O. Selznick was upset that Hattie McDaniel would not be invited to the Atlanta premiere,” said Bernstein. “He argued over and over that she should be allowed.”
Selznick was guided by the office of Atlanta’s then-mayor William B. Hartsfield. It was Hartsfield that originally reached out to Selznick to bring the premiere to the city.
But due to the racial segregation laws in the Jim Crow south, none of the movie’s black stars were allowed to attend the premiere or even be included in the movie’s promotional program. McDaniel did attend the Los Angeles premiere and was featured in the program.
“Selznick, because he was Jewish, was very mindful of the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the late-1930s under Nazism,” Bernstein remarks. “And he saw an analogy between that persecution and the life of African-Americans under Jim Crow, especially in the South.”
Any little girl, especially those of us raised in the South, who watched that movie was immediately taken by two things – the sheer magnificence of the antebellum plantation, Tara, and Scarlett O’Hara. Scarlett was a badass, though also a deeply flawed human being. Her romance with Rhett Butler, though, was real chick-flick stuff. No one in modern times looks at that movie and thinks it is a historically-based documentary. It’s a movie. It’s entertainment.
HBO Max will bring it back for subscribers to stream with “a discussion” that explains its historical context and of course, denounce the depictions of slavery. Because, apparently, viewers are too stupid to understand that the Civil War era is a different place in time and the history of our nation than modern-day America.
Gone With the Wind is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible. These depictions are certainly counter to WarnerMedia’s values, so when we return the film to HBO Max, it will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions but will be presented as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed. If we are to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.
It smacks a lot like the demand that all Confederate statues be torn down. Removing statues (or movies) doesn’t erase history. I would argue it is important to see the statues and make it a teachable moment, as I learned to say when my son was young. Put them in museums if they can no longer be in public squares, but don’t destroy them. I am first generation Southern, and I have no ties to the Confederacy, my family never owned slaves. I have no white guilt. So, I know I have a different perspective than those with family members who died in the war.
Hattie McDaniel is often celebrated by woke Hollywood as the first black Oscar winner, as she should be celebrated. But Mammie, her character, was her own person. She didn’t take crap from Scarlett and Scarlett leaned on her for advice and support. Mammie was a strong person, not one of the field workers depicted as content to be slaves. Taking down the movie somehow lessens Ms. McDaniel’s achievement.
HBO Max and Warner Brothers are on a roll. The virtue-signaling is strong. First, they took away Elmer Fudd’s rifle and now this. They are terrified of the cancel culture and the social media outrage mob. And, it’s really dumb.
Gone With the Wind isn’t up there on my top favorite movies and it never has been. Frankly, I’ve never made it all the way through it in one seating. But it is a sentimental favorite. I loved the story of Scarlett O’Hara, warts and all. Even at a young age, I knew it wasn’t a true story. Margaret Mitchell, the author of the book, was kind of a real-life Scarlett O’Hara but clearly not to the degree of the book, which is fiction. And, yes, the Civil War was fought over slavery.
At one time, my husband and I had four cats. Each was named for GWTW characters – a yellow tabby with a distinctly bitchy personality named Scarlett, a beautiful calico named Prissy who was very shy and ran from strangers, a big yellow tabby named Rhett, and a yellow tabby named Beauregard. (Beauregard wasn’t a specific character, just a popular name for the time.) We called him Beau. It was just a fun thing to do to acknowledge the classic story. Now, I guess, it just makes us racist.