Spike Lee’s Oscar-winning 2018 drama BlacKkKlansman opens with an iconic clip from David O Selznick’s 1939 Civil War epic Gone With the Wind. It shows the film’s heroine, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), walking through a trainyard full of wounded soldiers as a tattered Confederate flag flies in the distance. Lee juxtaposes this image with one of Alec Baldwin playing a pro-segregation narrator who has the same flag, now a symbol of white nationalism, in his office. In the racist rant that follows, his character expresses nostalgia for the past—a time marked by black servitude and romanticised for generations to come in lavish technicolor melodramas like Gone With the Wind.
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel, Gone With The Wind, 1939.
Lee wasn’t the first to criticise the almost four-hour-long Hollywood classic. In fact, it has provoked anger from audiences since its release. African-Americans picketed its premieres in several cities including Chicago and Washington, denouncing the way it glorified slavery. Black journalists condemned it in the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier, but the response from the white press was largely rapturous and their view became the prevailing wisdom. Over the 81 years that followed, there were glimpses of dissent—critic Lou Lumenick calling for it to be consigned to museums in 2015; Memphis’s Orpheum Theatre pulling it from their schedule in 2017—but only now, in the wake of global protests supporting Black Lives Matter, does the world finally seem to be listening.A contested legacy
On June 8, two weeks after the protests began following the death of George Floyd, screenwriter John Ridley asked the recently launched streaming service HBO Max to remove Gone With the Wind from its platform via an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. He requested that it stay off the service for a respectful amount of time before being reintroduced with historical context. The next day, HBO Max agreed to do just that. By the end of the week, film scholar Jacqueline Stewart had announced that she would be providing a new introduction to the film when it is reinstated.
On June 24, Gone With the Wind returned to HBO Max with two additional videos: an introduction in which Stewart states that the film ‘denies the horrors of slavery’ and an hour-long panel discussion that delves into its contested legacy. “Viewers should think about the fact that when this film was made, American life was structured by racial segregation,” Stewart tells Vogue. “When Gone With the Wind premiered, its African-American cast members were not invited to attend the premiere in Atlanta. When Hattie McDaniel won her Oscar for portraying Mammy, she had to sit at a small separate table away from other cast members.”
Hattie McDaniel in a publicity portrait for Gone with the Wind, 1939.
McDaniel, despite being the first black actor ever to win an Oscar, was also typecast for the rest of her career, playing a maid at least 74 times. “It was as if I had done something wrong,” she said, when speaking of her win in 1944. “This context helps us to see that the film is not just a fictional historical fantasy,” adds Stewart. “It’s a product of an era still characterised by overt racial inequality.”A domino effect
While many of the film’s detractors welcome such context, others believe it isn’t enough. Among them is Queen Latifah, who played McDaniel in Ryan Murphy’s Netflix series Hollywood and told Associated Press that Gone With the Wind should be gone forever. Although it’s unlikely that the film will be taken out of general circulation—as was the case for Disney’s controversial 1946 musical Song of the South—the discussion around it has prompted a reevaluation of Golden Age stalwarts. In the UK, Sky has since added disclaimers to a number of films: 1927’s The Jazz Singer which features actors in blackface; 1961’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s in which Mickey Rooney plays a Japanese man; and 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia which upholds the narrative of the white saviour.
The problem isn’t relegated to the distant past either. In recent weeks, Netflix, BritBox and BBC iPlayer have removed the 2000s comedy series Little Britain from its platforms due to the lead actors’ use of blackface. Also under fire are The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen which have been removed from Netflix because of their use of blackface; the reality show Cops which was cancelled by the Paramount Network after being accused of glorifying the police without holding them to account; four episodes of 30 Rock which have been removed from streaming, in which characters appear in blackface; and the Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Germans’ which was taken off the streaming service UKTV and then reinstated with a warning about its potentially offensive content and language.An ever-present issue
As we reexamine releases that contain racial slurs and caricatured depictions of people of colour, it’s also worth scrutinising those which are more subtle in their preservation of the status quo. One such film is The Help, Tate Taylor’s 2011 tear-jerker about a white woman (Emma Stone) in 1960s Mississippi who exposes the racism faced by two black maids (Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer). The latter characters are sidelined, their pain glossed over and white guilt quickly absolved. In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Davis said she regretted taking on the role, adding: “I just felt that at the end of the day it wasn’t the voices of the maids that were heard.”
On June 4, as protests were ramping up, the film shot to the top of the Netflix chart, prompting a social media backlash. Stone’s co-star Bryce Dallas Howard urged viewers to expand their horizons, writing on Instagram: “The Help is a fictional story told through the perspective of a white character and was created by predominantly white storytellers. We can all go further.” Taylor has not yet responded to the comments.
Emma Stone, Octavia Spencer, Viola Davis in The Help, 2011.
Similar feel-good hits which feature white saviour tropes and overly simplified plots about racial reconciliation are still commonplace in Hollywood, from 2009’s The Blind Side and 2016’s Free State of Jones, to 2018’s Oscar Best Picture winner Green Book. These films provide comfort and easy solutions for a problem the industry has long ignored—an issue that will never be solved unless we confront the horrors of our cinematic past head-on. We need to reevaluate film history by looking at our cultural touchstones with a more critical eye, adding disclaimers and warnings where necessary and acknowledging the fact that the last century of whitewashing continues to shape the content we make today. Only then can we break this pattern and build a better future.A cultural reckoning
Conservative critics will continue to label this a form of censorship, but none of the releases in question are expected to be locked away. TV shows that have been removed from streaming and syndication are still available as DVD box sets and Gone With the Wind can now be found on HBO Max as well as iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Prime. Most of those who are eager for us to view the latter in a new light are not calling for it to be banned. “It is important for films like Gone With the Wind to be available because they are evidence of the ways people thought about race and slavery for generations,” says Stewart. “Through them, we can see how particular stereotypes developed... and it helps us to see how these work in other classic films.”
Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Universal/Moviestore/Shutterstock (10183655g)Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala AliGreen Book - 2018
All that she asks is that Gone With the Wind not be treated like an unimpeachable landmark. For decades, it and other undeniably racist offerings such as DW Griffith’s 1915 hit The Birth of a Nation have occupied a prominent place in our cultural imagination. The former has been selected by the US Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, honoured with anniversary screenings, celebrated at film festivals and studied in film schools around the world. It’s about time we pulled it off its pedestal, really considered its impact on the world and tried to determine if it’s truly deserving of the praise we have heaped upon it for so long.
“This is a real opportunity,” adds Stewart, of the reckoning that is currently in progress. “More people are paying attention to questions of anti-black violence and racial disparities than ever before, and hopefully this means that more people are seeing issues across our history, society and media landscape that African-Americans have been protesting [about] for a long time.” The goal isn’t cultural policing or panic erasing, but understanding our past so that we don’t keep repeating our mistakes. “When we look at these films with more sensitivity to their original contexts, we gain a deeper understanding of them and of ourselves as viewers,” she says. “Then, we demand more films created by people who have been marginalised so that they can narrate their own stories.”Also read:
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