(L-R) Vivian Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in ‘Gone With the Wind.’ Photo credit: Silver Screen Collection
It’s a new day in the entertainment world; the romanticized antebellum south is finally being put into context.
HBO Max announced they are withdrawing 1939’s Gone With the Wind temporarily as a response to sensitivity of the images and issues it contains. This sensitivity has increased in light of the George Floyd protests. HBO Max has said they will put the film back on their platform with more context for viewers. If you’ve seen the warnings and descriptions Disney+ has put in front of many of their older pieces of media, including cartoons, films and television shows, expect something similar with regards to the updated and contextualized Gone with the Wind.
According to CNN (via The Root), a HBO Max spokesperson said the company decided to take the film down in order to give viewers proper context for the images they were seeing.
“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,” they said.
When the film comes back to the platform, the spokesperson added, it “will with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions.” It will also be presented “as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.” They added if Americans are working to “create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first acknowledge and understand our history.”
I, for one, am happy about this change. Even though I love classic movies, I’ve never been able to enjoy Gone with the Wind, much less give it the grace of engaging in repeat viewings of it, something many white southern women are guilty of. I know this for a fact because I’m from Alabama–the idea of the southern belle still looms large in the state and in the southern region as a whole, but instead of big gowns, there’s frills and lace trims on culottes.
The romantic image of Scarlett still lives on in the air of white southern femininity. So does Scarlett’s cultured racism. For many white women, there’s still an adherence to “southern hospitality,” which is to appear nice on the surface for community status, but inwardly too many still believe that all Black men are inherently criminal or primed to hurt you (real discussions I’ve had with real white women in my life). Politeness often supports the strict belief in the order of white supremacy, the strange paternalistic care many white women around the nation still fall back on, as we’ve seen with the Amy Cooper video. That same disturbing politeness is what’s at the center of Scarlett O’Hara’s character, a genteel woman who gives an air of graciousness and fragility for public consumption, but is actually hiding a darker, more sinister side.
Yes, the film is one that led Hattie McDaniel to making Oscars history, becoming the first African-American woman to win the prestigious award. But we must also remember the values the film glorified, values that prevented McDaniel from even sitting with her fellow actors in the same theater when the film debuted in Atlanta, or on Oscar night as her name was called to receive her award.
The film glorifies the south that reveled in slavery, let’s make no mistake about it. The film might be positioned as an epic love story, but it’s a love story amid an unrecognized human tragedy, slavery.
While it was tragic that people on both sides of the war lost their lives, that devastation still plays second to Scarlett O’Hara’s supposed loss. We’re told to think it’s tragic that Scarlett O’ Hara has lost her livelihood, her fancy gowns, her prestige. The system of white supremacy has taught us that humanity is tied to wealth, status and property because those factors are used as cogs in its machine. Because Scarlett has lost all three, we’re supposed to have sympathy for her for being made to feel less than human. But if her wealth and status was built on owning people, then what kind of humanity did Scarlett really have? I’d argue she had none.
The unspoken tragedy of Gone with the Wind–the practice of owning people as slaves, as property–is an issue that should be front and center, but it’s treated as a backdrop to Scarlett’s frivolousness. While we’re distracted by Scarlett’s selfishness and brattiness, we see the actual compelling characters of this story, slaves who are made to be more than set dressing or comic relief. Like a lot of media during the ’40s, we’re supposed to believe that slaves were happy to be owned and willingly served their white masters without a care in the world. But that message is a form of American-funded propaganda.
But, like the spokesperson said, I do believe that getting rid of all movies that are problematic don’t allow people to learn. So while I’m glad the film is gone for the time being, I’m also pleased that it will come back with some added messaging for viewers, especially those viewers who consider this their favorite film.
If viewers are to really take in this film as an artifact of its time, then that means, of course, to reckon with the racism and white supremacist politics on full display. For many women who see Scarlett as an ideal, it might mean becoming uncomfortable with whatever role you might have played in downplaying a Black woman’s disregard for the film or discomfort at seeing Scarlett lifted up as a lofty goal. It will mean realizing how the lives of the Black people on screen, both the characters and the actors portraying them, were seen as insignificant and unworthy of investigation, time or honor. It means making some hard choices, and that could mean, for some people, to divorce themselves from the Gone with the Wind fandom forever.
What I’d like to see going forward in the Gone with the Wind discussion, are white women writing about their experiences of viewing the film in a different light. I want to know how they react to their romanticized bubble of the antebellum south being burst. I want to see what kind of awakening they will have. Because, frankly, HBO Max’s contextualization of the film isn’t meant for me, or for many Black Americans. We already know the other half of the story. The context is meant for white viewers, and in my opinion, white women in particular.
This moment, redefining the film and one’s relationship to it, is one of many instances where white people have to do their own work when it comes to reckoning with race. Let’s hope they’re up to the task. As for me, I’m going to keep honoring McDaniel’s legacy, but Gone with the Wind will continue to be left out of my film collection.