A month ago, John Ridley, Academy Award winner for adapted screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, spurred on calls fro HBO Max t o remove David O Selznick’s film adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind from its streaming service. Ridley points out that the film, “as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings.”
Even with the novel’s release in 1936, activists saw the damage that such a text could have on the public, specifically a Southern public who since the late 1800s sought to construct an alternate narrative of its past, presenting it as idyllic, mythologized, agrarian existence that the Northern aggressors sought to destroy. In 1937, George Schuyler, author of Black No More and other Harlem Renaissance novels, stated that Gone With the Wind “”is just another Rebel propaganda tract to the colored citizen who knows our national history and knows the South.”
Lillian Smith, in her column “Dope with Lime” in the fall 1936 issue of Pseudopodia, noted that Mitchell had knowledge of the period of which she wrote, but Smith also noted that Mitchell’s did not “posses the understanding of distant historical backgrounds and social origins necessary for grasping and evaluating the complexities inherent in the period and its people.” Instead, Mitchell’s understanding was too narrow, too heavily relying on stereotypes and myth.
Smith called Gone With the Wind “a curious puffball compounded of printer’s ink and bated breath, rolled in sugary sentimentality, stuck full of spicy Southern taboos, intended for and getting mass consumption.” In short, it served not as an historically accurate portrayal of the Old South but as a packaged and idealized version that upheld white supremacist ideas because it knew that those ideas would sell to the masses. Smith understood this, and she finished her review by writing, “Harmless enough. Unless it has done what its publishers claim ‘set a brand new standard for fiction.’ That we should be inclined to take it seriously.”
If Mitchell’s novel actually did what the publishers said, then it wouldn’t just be a harmless pot-boiler placating a small audience. Instead, it would serve as a cultural touchstone that perpetuated the “Lost Cause” to an international audience. Coupled with the 1939 film adaptation, Gone With the Wind carried its whitewashing of slavery and the South all over the globe, causing harm culturally and psychologically, stunting the psyches of its audience.
The NAACP and Walter White totally understood the effects of a film adaptation of Mitchell’s novel would have on its audience. When word got out about the film, White got in touch with Selznick, detailing his concerns and even pushing Selznick to hire an African American consultant for the film. In 1938, one year before the film’s debut, White wrote to Selznick that the “motion picture, appealing as it does to both the visual and the auditory senses, reaches so many Americans, particularly of the middle classes, that infinite harm could be done in a critical period like this one when racial hatred and prejudices are so alive.”
Cultural productions, specifically movies which appeal to multiple senses, affect audiences. We see this time and time again. Frantz Fanon writes about this when he talks about children in the Antilles watching Tarzan, a character who provides a “ collective catharsis,” specifically for the white audience members who identify with him. Since a white man created Tarzan, and whites produce other forms of media with Tarzan, Fanon states that the “Tarzan stories, the sagas of twelve-year-old explorers, the adventures of Mickey Mouse, and all those ‘comic books’ serve actually as a release for collective aggression” for white audiences who seek to reaffirm their positions amidst social change.
In this manner, the Black children begin to identify with Tarzan, the white savior, “civilized” protagonist. This identification causes them to internalize social constructions of race and to internalize feelings of inferiority. To counter this, Fanon argues for “the establishment of children’s magazines especially for Negroes, the creation of songs for Negro children, and, ultimately, the publication of history texts especially for them, at least through the grammar-school grades,” something that is not new and something that African Americans have called for and done for over two centuries.
Frank Yerby was one of the authors who, though not directly stating it, led a charge against Gone With the Wind and the mythologized “Lost Cause” mentality. He did this, of course, with The Foxes of Harrow (1946), but I would argue that he also did this earlier in his 1944 story “White Magnolias.” In the story. Yerby uses the white magnolia as a symbol to deconstruct the “moonlight and magnolia” narrative that Gone With the Wind and other cultural products propagated. This dreamlike narrative appears at multiple points, but near the end of the novel, Scarlett O’Hara and Ashley Wilkes think back to plantation life before the Civil War.
As he spoke, his light grip tightened on her hand and in his voice was the sad magic of old half-forgotten songs. She could hear the gay jingle of bridle bits as they rode under the dogwood trees to the Tarletons’ picnic, hear her own careless laughter, see the sun glinting on his silver-gilt hair and note the proud easy grace with which he sat his horse. There was music in his voice, the music of fiddles and banjos to which they had danced in the white house that was no more. There was the far-off yelping of possum dogs in the dark swamp under cool autumn moons and the smell of eggnog bowls, wreathed with the holly at Christmas time and smiles on black and white faces. . . . Over it all rested a sense of security, a knowledge that tomorrow could only bring the same happiness today had brought.
Their reminiscence romanticizes the plantation system, a system that bought and sold humans as property; a system that relied on the labor of enslaved individuals; a system that dehumanized individuals; a system that the South fought to preserve. Yet, even though this was the system, Scareltt and Ashley remember it in Scarlett-colored terms, eliminating the brutality and truth.
Similarly, Beth does the same at the end of “White Magnolias” as she walks down the path with her friend Hannah. Beth picks up a magnolia blossom and begins to think of balls inside the plantation house, of fanciful nights, of suitors and food. However, these images dissolve, and the reality of the Antebellum South sets in as she begins to see “only the long line of black men and women in their faded rags moving between the stalks of the cotton. And the auctioneer was holding open a black man’s mouth to show his fine teeth. And the slow heartbreaking songs rose up from the little cabins and the stench of black flesh drowned out the jasmine.” At this, she tears the magnolia blossom to shreds and throws it on the ground.
Cultural products have a large impact on the ways that audiences view the world. Gone With the Wind continues to have an impact as Elizabeth Austin and others note. Austin tells the story of a seven-year old girl who sat enraptured by the film at the Gone With the Wind museum in Marietta, GA. The museum director commented, “There are all these new fans, the younger ones, and it’s important to them, too…They see it, and they don’t see the history; they just see a good movie that has all the elements.” That is the problem. “THEY DON’T SEE THE HISTORY!” Instead, they see the concocted history that distorts the reality. This is pernicious and leads to dreams and fantasies like the one Beth has or even superheroes like Rogue from the X-Men. Left unchecked, narratives such as this will do more harm with each audience member who embraces the narratives instead of questioning them.
We need to contextualize films such as Gone With The Wind. Kimberely Nichele Brown puts it this way, “Do I think it should be gone forever? No. I teach Gone With the Wind . . . But I teach with a whole lesson plan about race and racism. I historicize these movies.” This is what we need to do.