I sometimes get obsessed with certain podcasts, and one of my recent favorites is “Unspooled,” a podcast that, on each episode, examines a movie from the American Film Institute’s top 100 list and discusses whether or not it deserves to be there. I was shocked and saddened when the show got to “Gone with the Wind.” While the podcast hosts differed on how racist the film was, both of them had plenty of praise for it and agreed it belonged on the AFI list.
I wrote a short note responding to the episode for the “Unspooled” Facebook group but my post was declined and I got this message back from the Admin of the page: “I’m sorry but the group has proved recently that they are not in a place to have mature conversation about this. It’s already been discussed a lot, and any new posts are going to cause more drama and more fighting.”
Film discussions shouldn’t shy away from drama. So I decided to post what I was going to write for the “Unspooled” page here.
“Gone With the Wind” by Margaret Mitchell is a racist movie based on a racist book by a racist author. The movie, the book and the author helped popularized dangerous lies about the South–that blacks enjoyed their enslavement (untrue), that slavesholders were benevolent (they weren’t), and that the Civil War was about maintaining a romantic way of life (the so-called “Lost Cause”) when it was actually about maintaining slavery.
After the release of her novel “Gone with the Wind,” Mitchell responded to a fan letter from Thomas Dixon, author of “The Clansman,” the hateful book that inspired the racist film “Birth of a Nation.” “Dear Mr. Dixon…I was practically raised on your books, and love them very much,” she replied to him. “For many years I have had you on my conscience, and I suppose I might as well confess it now.” In “Gone with the Wind,” the Klan kills “a negro who had boasted of rape” so his white victim doesn’t have to testify in court–and the lynching is portrayed sympathetically. (Note: I first learned a lot of the historical material in this post from reading “The Wind Goes On: Gone with the Wind and the Imagined Geographies of the American South,” a dissertation by Virginia Tech instructor Taulby H. Edmondson.)
Blacks in “Gone with the Wind” are described in racist, insulting ways. Mitchell calls blacks “scarcely one generation out of the African jungles.” Mammy’s face is described as having “the uncomprehending sadness of a money’s face.” When Scarlett and the once-enslaved Big Sam are reunited after the Civil War, Mitchell writes that “his watermelon-pink tongue lapped out, his whole body wiggled, and his joyful contortions were as ludicrous as the gambolings of a mastiff.” Blacks in the movie, like Butterfly McQueen’s character Prissy, are just as crudely drawn. “I hated that role,” McQueen once said. “I thought the movie was going to show the progress black people had made, but Prissy was lazy and stupid and backward. She needed to be slapped.”
The movie’s entertainment value, if there is any, can’t possibly outweigh the actual harm the movie has done in helping to spread stereotypes and justify racial terror and segregation.
Malcolm X hated “Gone With the Wind” and said its stereotypes made him feel like “crawling under the rug.” James Baldwin called the movie obscene and argued that it promoted “the myth of the happy darky.”
Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., once wrote “I distinctly remember when I first saw the film. I was 17 years old, and I was astonished as I sat in a movie theater in Keyser, West Virginia, to see the white patrons weep loudly at the death of ‘The Old South.’ If you are a black person, as I am, the death of ‘The Old South’ meant the liberation of one’s ancestors! It is an occasion for celebration. And the embarrassing depictions of characters such as Mammy and the character played by Butterfly McQueen…have taken decades for black authors to overcome.”
The black press recognized “Gone with the Wind” as racist propaganda from its release in 1939. In the Washington Tribune, Black poet Melvin B. Tolson wrote that “‘Gone with the Wind’ is more dangerous than ‘Birth of a Nation.’” He blasted it as nothing more than “anti-Negro, anti-Yankee, KKK propaganda…a falsification of history…‘The Birth of a Nation’ was such a barefaced lie that a moron could see through it. ‘Gone with the Wind’ is such a subtle lie that it will be swallowed as truth by millions of whites and blacks alike.”
In 1805, abolitionist Samuel Wood published a broadsheet cataloging first-person accounts of some of the atrocities of slavery. Enslaved men and women were routinely and systematically raped, their families broken apart and their children sold. Enslaved people were branded with red hot irons and tortured with the drippings of molten lead. Pregnant enslaved women were whipped so severely that they died of their wounds. Enslaved people were “put into the stocks, a cattle chain of sixty or seventy pounds weight put on them, and a large collar round their necks, and a weight of fifty-six pounds fastened to the chain, when they were driven afield: the collars are formed with two, three, or four projections, which hinder them from lying down to sleep.”
I can see why some people embrace “Gone with the Wind” despite its flaws–it’s a film with a feisty female protagonist at its center and that’s a powerful lure. The movie also pushes racial buttons we might not even realize are being pushed–we may think we’re responding to the film’s sweeping “romance” when really we’re giving into something deeper and uglier and possibly unacknowledged within us. Pulitzer-prize winning critic Margo Jefferson once offered this advice for watching “Gone with the Wind”: “Watch it well armed with political, social and race history, and approach it as real critics of how film manipulates, how it can turn even your own impulses and instincts against you.”
I’m hoping that “Unspooled” does a follow-up episode and talks to an expert in African-American history and the Reconstruction era to put “Gone with the Wind” in the proper social and historical context.
Wood wrote at the end of his antislavery pamphlet: “Let now every honest man lay his hand on his breast, and seriously reflect, whether he is justifiable in countenancing such barbarities; or whether he ought not to reject, with horror, the smallest participation in such infernal transactions.”
“Gone with the Wind,” by promoting slavery, is a participant in these “infernal transactions.”
You can check out my new book “Around Harvard Square” on Amazon.