I was probably 12 when I first read Gone with the Wind, curled up in a nest of blankets with a bag of chips at my side. It was the size of two bricks, but I don’t think I left my room for three days, until I’d finished it. I’d never encountered a character like horrifying, mesmerizing Scarlett O’Hara, a woman so awful she stole both her sisters’ boyfriends and then discarded them like used tissue. When people describe Scarlett as “plucky” or a lovely Southern belle, I wonder if they’ve read the novel that Margaret Mitchell wrote. Scarlett is dogged, yes, but also greedy, corrupt, delusional – a magnificent literary character.
What I didn’t notice, at 12, was the fact that none of the Black characters were nearly as well drawn as Scarlett. Their inner lives were absent. The horror of their existence as slaves was absent. They were portrayed only in relation to the white families they served, treated as children, given a grotesque dialect to speak (confronted with Scarlett’s plan to extort money from Rhett Butler, Mammy says: “Ah’s said Ah’s gwine ter ‘Lanta wid you, and gwine Ah is!”).
I was around the same age when I saw the 1939 film for the first time, at a magnificent single-auditorium theatre in Toronto, and once again I didn’t register these absences. I was too busy with the opulent costumes, the heart-stopping drama of the burning of Atlanta, the dreaminess of Clark Gable (I soon learned, to my horror, that he was at the unimaginably old age of 39 when he made the film).
I wasn’t the only one who saw only what I wanted to see. “The film’s style, plot and legendary status are so extravagant that for many viewers its racial politics are hardly noticed,” film scholar Jacqueline Stewart says in a new introduction that will now accompany the film when it is streamed on HBO Max.
The broadcaster’s streaming service had briefly suspended Gone with the Wind from the platform after John Ridley, the Oscar-award winning screenplay writer of 12 Years a Slave, wrote an opinion piece condemning the film, saying it “continues to give cover to those who falsely claim that clinging to the iconography of the plantation era is a matter of ‘heritage, not hate.’ ”
Mr. Ridley is hardly the first person to call out the film’s questionable depiction of history. Black advocacy groups expressed their concerns to the film’s producer David O. Selznick before the cameras even began rolling, and Black protesters picketed some theatres when it debuted in December, 1939. (When the movie premiered in Atlanta, its Black stars could not attend because the theatre was segregated. When Hattie McDaniel became the first Black actor to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy, she was not allowed to sit at the ceremony with her white co-stars.)
What do with such a problematic beast? Consign it to the dust heap of history? Even Mr. Ridley didn’t want that. Instead, HBO did a wise thing and decided to put a frame around what is still the top-grossing movie in history.
Dr. Stewart’s brief introduction puts the film into context for today’s audiences – explaining, for example, how important it was in perpetuating a false ideal about the Confederacy’s motives. To watch the film is to understand the struggles of Black actors to find meaningful roles in the early days of Hollywood (a problem that’s hardly disappeared today). The solution is not to abandon films such as Gone with the Wind, she says, but use them as a tool for better understanding history: “They reflect the social context in which they were made, and invite viewers to reflect on their own values and beliefs when watching them now.‘'
Over the years, I’ve reread Gone with the Wind numerous times and pushed it into other people’s hands with the words, “Okay, so this is deeply problematic, but it’s still a great novel about one woman’s psychology.” Maybe they take one look at it and toss it in the donation box. But maybe, just maybe, it starts a conversation, which is what art should do.
It’s also where art, disagreeable though it might be, is different from the racist statues that are being pulled down around the globe. Those statues glorify a way of being in the world, literally placing it on a pedestal, without context or nuance or dialogue. A piece of art, whether it’s a book or a film or a song, engages different responses, provides an opening into a wider understanding, raises more questions than it answers. A statue imposes itself on whoever passes by; a book or a film or a song can be ignored.
We’re not the same people we were when we first encountered a book or a movie we loved. In some ways, that feeling of being swept away is more important than the art itself. As you get older, and realize that nothing is pure any more, pretty much everything that was once beloved becomes tainted with knowledge gained along the way. The movie stays the same, but your eyes have changed. Or ears, for that matter. I can’t listen to James Brown, for example, without thinking “serial wife beater,” which makes me a drag at parties.
In this way, art becomes a useful metaphor for life itself. Nothing ever becomes less complicated. But for that reason, it’s also more interesting. The next time I have four hours to watch Gone with the Wind, or a week to read it, I’ll see something I didn’t before. It will probably be something ugly, but that’s part of the whole picture.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.