HBO Max has removed the Oscar-winning 1939 film from its platform citing that it perpetuates inaccurate and disturbing stereotypes about race and a racist mythology about American history.
Gone With the Wind was my favourite book and then movie when I was growing up. I read it again and again from age thirteen to sixteen. I even had that famous picture up on my wall of ‘Mammy’ tightening the corset on Scarlett’s ‘sixteen inch’ waist as Scarlett held on to the bedpost, Scarlett’s dark curls cascading down her back.
I was known for loving this book (ask anyone who went to school with me), which I imagined was literary. I also believed that the women were strong, and I was thrilled by the galloping historical narrative and the epic romance.
However, I slowly became awakened to the principle ethos of both book and movie. I wrote my college essay when applying to college on this awakening. Ironically, I attended the same college (Smith College) as Margaret Mitchell who went down in Smith history for refusing to remain in any classroom in which a Black woman entered. Mitchell was a confirmed racist even for her time. Her 1936 novel glorified the slave market and the movie does as well.
One can always find ways to defend a book or movie by emphasising something seemingly positive such as its supposed “strong” female character. And it might have been easy for some to romanticise feisty and loyal Mammy while ignoring the fact that she is given no real name, children or family of her own and that her loyalty came in the form of a blind devotion to whites who owned her. A de-eroticized foil to the fiery Scarlett, Mammy was played in the film by Hattie McDaniel who was the first African American woman to receive an Oscar.*
I remember the other slave woman character in the novel, Prissy, played by Butterly McQueen** in the film, who Scarlett slaps across the face. This humiliating physical abuse is presented in such a way where it seems that the slap was deserved. The book suppresses the thought that if the slap occurred in the other direction, the slave woman would have been murdered by whites. I also remember the glorification of the Ku Klux Klan in the book and movie—remember when Frank and the other “heroes” in the narrative go out at night to terrorise Black people? Mitchell and the film’s directors set up this scene and the events leading up to it in such a way to make readers and viewers feel that these men are spreading terror for good reasons, to protect the white man’s honor and the white woman’s safety. For Mitchell, the Ku Klux Klan was understandable and necessary and its members were victims.
I heartily support the film’s removal from HBO during this time of international awakening. And I admire HBO Max for their plan to bring it back along with a statement about its historical context in order to prompt observations about and an analysis of the shocking values this world-famous and beloved movie espouses.
It is empowering to let go of something immoral we thought we loved. That is how we grow.
*At the Oscars, McDaniel was required to sit at a segregated table at the far wall of the room. The hotel had a no-blacks policy, but allowed McDaniel in as a favor. The discrimination continued after the awards ceremony where McDaniel was denied entry to the after parties. Another black woman did not win an Oscar again for 50 years. In the weeks prior to McDaniel winning her Oscar, the producer of Gone With the Wind, omitted the faces of the black actors on the posters advertising the movie in the South. None of the black cast members, including Hattie McDaniel, were allowed to attend the premiere for the movie.
**Butterfly McQueen (pictured above), like Hattie McDaniel, was unable to attend the movie’s premiere because it was held at a whites-only theatre. Often typecast as a maid, she said: “I didn’t mind playing a maid the first time, because I thought that was how you got into the business. But after I did the same thing over and over, I resented it. I didn’t mind being funny, but I didn’t like being stupid.”