Category Archives: Movies

‘Unspooled’ and the Racist Legacy of ‘Gone With the Wind’

GWTWI 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.

‘Us’ Vs Them

 

Universal's poster for "Us."
Universal’s poster for “Us.”

I saw Jordan Peele‘s new movie “Us” the other day, and then I looked up the Rotten Tomatoes audience scores online–and I was shocked to see a bunch of trolls had panned it! Then I checked the Rotten Tomatoes audience scores for a bunch of other black movies and I began to notice a trend. So I wrote this essay for the Grio.

BTW, I have a new novel coming out called “Around Harvard Square” that you should check out, and I’ll be reading from it at the Voracious Reader in Larchmont, NY on Friday, March 29 at 7 p.m. I hope I see you there!

‘Wonder Woman’ at the WSJ Cafe

“Wonder Woman” had some bad early buzz in some quarters, but now that it has actually been screened by critics, the raves are coming in and as of this writing it has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The star of “Wonder Woman,” Gal Gadot, and the director, Patty Jenkins, chatted with the WSJ Cafe about the hotly anticipated superhero movie, which opens up on Thursday, and offered up some advice on how we can all be more like Wonder Woman in real life. Watch the video:

Taraji P. Henson on ‘Hidden Figures,’ ‘Empire’ and Being Cookie

Taraji P. Henson doesn’t like getting bored. She’s had an exciting career run lately, starring in the hit movie “Hidden Figures” and continuing her star turn as Cookie in the TV series “Empire.” She stopped by the WSJ Cafe recently and she told me in an interview that she’s already thinking about her career after “Empire” because she enjoys the challenge of playing new characters. Could a superhero role be in her future? Watch the videos.

Hugh Jackman Talks About ‘Logan,’ Leaving ‘X-Men,’ at the WSJ Cafe

Hugh Jackman stopped by the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Cafe to chat with me about his new movie “Logan.” He told me it will be his last turn as the Wolverine character, but the film is getting such raves reviews (94 percent on Rotten Tomatoes as I write this), he’s going to face lots of pressure to play the role again. Jackman also gave me some details about his coming musical about P.T. Barnum, “The Greatest Showman,” which he’s doing with Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the composers behind the music for “La La Land” and the hit Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.” Check out the videos: