The Orpheum Theater in Memphis has cancelled its traditional annual screening of “Gone With the Wind,” apparently in response to the anti-all-things-Confederate sentiment that’s seizing the nation.
As a longtime fan of both the film and the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel on which it is based, this saddened me. Having read the book something like five times and watched the film something like 25 times (including the 1989 50th anniversary theatrical re-release where I got to see it for the first time as it was meant to be seen, on the big screen), I think they both contain important lessons.
Gone With the Wind was written by a southern woman, Margaret Mitchell, in the 1920s but not published until 1936. It was her first and only book. It was adapted for the screen in 1939 and became one of the most epic and beloved American films of all time. It was also a monumental achievement in filmmaking.
It’s the story of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, and her evolution from sheltered plantation owner’s daughter to impoverished war casualty to scrappy Reconstruction-era survivor and hard-headed businesswoman. It’s also a love triangle between Scarlett, Rhett Butler and Ashley Wilkes. It’s set against the backdrop of the Civil War but it’s not supposed to be “about” the war, or slavery.
No, it is not a realistic depiction of the institution of slavery. Yes, the black characters in it are mostly stereotypes. It was published in 1936 and filmed in 1939. GWTW is dismissed by its critics as romanticizing the Confederacy and the Old South, when on the contrary, if you look past all the melodrama and hoop skirts and “fiddle-dee-dees” you can find a strong anti-Confederacy statement.
Gone With the Wind contains strong black characters and staunchly anti-slavery white characters, most notably the character of Ashley Wilkes. My takeaway has always been that it’s a scathing indictment of the Confederacy and the hubris of Confederates who believed they could prevail against the economic and military might of the United States government. Admittedly all this comes across more in the book, but it’s there in the film too.
More than once the character of Rhett Butler, as played by Clark Gable, laments the waste of human life produced by the war and lays the blame on the Confederates.
Scarlett and her sisters find out karma’s a bitch when they have to toil in their own cotton fields and go hungry.
Anyone who comes away from the book or film without getting the message that the Southern rebellion was a really bad idea is not paying attention.
You can actually find it in the title itself: Gone With the Wind. This is a way of life that’s over, gone forever. Never coming back, and rightly so. While her fellow defeated southerners cling desperately and futilely to romantic notions of the South’s past glory, Scarlett pragmatically and unsentimentally moves on.
One aspect of GWTW that gets lost in all the racial controversy is that it’s actually a feminist story. It brought us the strongest female characters seen to date on the screen. Scarlett O’Hara, deeply flawed but resilient and resourceful, is one of the toughest and most compelling female characters in American literature and film. As a twelve-and-a-half-year-old girl reading the book for the first time, that had meaning for me.
When you also consider the characters of Melanie Wilkes, Mammy, and others, it’s the women who shine in GWTW. For her unforgettable performance as Mammy, Hattie McDaniel won the first-ever Academy Award granted to an African American actor.
Some African Americans are offended by the content of Gone With the Wind. But others say it does not offend them at all. Like all works of artistic expression, what you take from it is in the eye of the beholder.
Artistic works of decades past should be viewed in the context of the time in which they were created, not censored. It’s unfair to hold them to present-day standards. If nothing else, GWTW provides a time capsule-like picture of how the Antebellum era in America was viewed in the first half of the 20th century.
Instead of being banned, it could be presented in an educational forum discussing the issues surrounding it and how society has changed since the 1930s in its perception of them.
Surely GWTW is not a movie for everybody, just like comic book hero movies and the “Fast and Furious” franchise aren’t for everybody. But fans of the film really should get to experience it at least once in a movie theater, with other movie-goers reacting along with them to the dialogue and scenes.
Does one group of vocal critics have the right to censor what everyone else can see? What will be next? Will American classics like Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain in the 1870s, be banned from libraries? I worry where all of this is going.
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