The Long Battle Over ‘Gone With the Wind’

When HBO Max introduced Tuesday that it was briefly eradicating “Gone With the Wind” from its streaming service, it appeared as if one other Confederate monument was coming down.

“Gone With the Wind” might register with youthful folks at present solely as their grandmother’s favourite film (or perhaps, the supply of a lacerating joke that opens Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”). And for each distinguished conservative accusing HBO Max of censorship, there have been lots on social media calling the film, nicely, boring.

But the 1939 traditional — nonetheless the highest-grossing movie of all time, adjusted for inflation — has enduringly formed well-liked understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction maybe greater than every other cultural artifact.

“You want to have a Southern antebellum wedding — where does that come from?” stated Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian at Wellesley College who teaches a course on slavery and movie. “People will say they haven’t seen the movie. But they have seen it — just not in its original form.”

The frenzy around the novel and the movie also touched off a national craze for all things Dixie. Mitchell was inundated with requests to authorize “Gone With the Wind”-themed pens, hats, dolls, even chintz fabric. In 1939, Macy’s devoted several floors of its flagship store to products associated with the film, under the theme “The Old South Comes North.”

“People just ate it up,” said Karen L. Cox, a historian at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.” And the Northern embrace of Mitchell’s plantation nostalgia, with its depiction of happy, obedient slaves, wasn’t just harmless lifestyle consumerism.

“There was nascent civil rights activity in the 1930s, but if everyone is watching this movie or reading this book, they get the idea that that’s how things were,” Cox said. “It made it easier for white Northerners to look at African-American migrants arriving in places like Chicago and say, ‘Why can’t you act like these Negroes?’”

But even as white Americans embraced the moonlight and magnolias, African-Americans were registering objections. Soon after the producer David O. Selznick bought the rights, there were complaints that a movie version would incite violence, spread bigotry and even derail a proposed federal anti-lynching bill.

Margaret Mitchell reacted dismissively to the criticism. “I do not intend to let any troublemaking Professional Negros change my feelings towards the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and mutual respect,” she wrote to a friend.

Selznick did a more complicated dance. “I for one have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film,” he wrote in a memo to the screenwriter Sidney Howard. “In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger.”

But the film put the nostalgic Lost Cause mythology — by that point, the dominant national view of the Civil War — front and center, starting with the opening title cards paying tribute to “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields,” a “pretty world where Gallantry took its last bow.”

Even during production, there were calls for an African-American boycott. Afterward, there were protests outside theaters in Chicago, Washington and other cities.

While responses to the finished film in the black press were mixed, the criticism was harsh. The Chicago Defender initially published a column calling it inoffensive and the performances of Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) and Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) examples of “Negro artistry.” But a week later, it ran a scathing review calling it “a weapon of terror against black America.” a sentiment echoed in other black papers like the Pittsburgh Courier, which denounced the depiction of all blacks as “happy house servants and unthinking, helpless clods.”

Among those who saw it around this time was a teenage Malcolm X. “I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug,” he wrote in his autobiography.

White audiences, meanwhile, were largely swept up in celebration of the nearly four-hour Technicolor epic, with its hundreds of extras, lavish costumes and themes of grit and survival that resonated with a country emerging from the Depression.

White newspapers, including The New York Times, carried rapturous coverage of the movie’s premieres in New York and Atlanta, where the four days of festivities included the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir (including, one film scholar has noted, a 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.) singing in front of a mock-up of Tara, the film’s plantation. But few noted the African-American protests, or any black criticism at all.

Even past the 1960s, the film endured for many white Americans as a beloved cultural touchstone, a symbol of golden age Hollywood — and even American identity itself.

In 1974, NBC paid a record-smashing $5 million dollars (more than $26 million today) for the right to show the film once, as part of its Bicentennial programming. Broadcast over two nights, it was watched by 47 percent of all American households.

Some African-American artists have made direct challenges to its whitewashed nostalgia. In 2001, the Mitchell estate fought a losing copyright battle against “The Wind Done Gone,” the novelist Alice Randall’s parody from the point of view of the enslaved. The authorized sequels, meanwhile, have tried, sometimes awkwardly, to update the book’s racial politics, while keeping the white-centered romance intact.

In Alexandra Ripley’s “Scarlett,” from 1991, Scarlett lovingly tends to the dying Mammy, who is ushered offstage (along with most of the black characters) early on. “Rhett Butler’s People,” by Donald McCaig, from 2007, focused on the post-Civil War struggle over the re-establishment of white supremacy, but glossed over the issue of the Klan (and Rhett’s possible membership).

Other institutions have changed their approaches. Since the Atlanta History Center took over the Margaret Mitchell House from a private group in 2006, the focus has shifted from a literary view that downplayed racial controversy to an emphasis on the story’s racist tropes and distorted history — and the fact that African-Americans objected from the beginning.

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