The most popular movie of all time, winner of 10 Academy Awards, was released 70 years ago.
For fans of " Gone With the Wind," the epic tale of the American South from the days of slavery through the Civil War and Reconstruction, this has resulted in seven decades of adoration for the dashing Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), the willful Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh), the earnest Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) and the self-sacrificing Melanie Hamilton Wilkes (Olivia de Havilland).
But for many, the 70 years of "Gone With the Wind's" existence constitute seven decades of lies about the real nature of slavery and the post-Civil War era. To be sure, "Gone With the Wind," based on Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel and brought to the screen by producer David Selznick and director Victor Fleming, is fiction and should not be judged as if it were a documentary. But so serious are the distortions of the historical record, and so harmful are the images in the film toward African-Americans, that its 70th anniversary — and the home video release this week of a 70th anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition, including the film's first appearance on Blu-ray — is as much a time for penance as celebration.
In "Gone With the Wind," American slavery is depicted as a noble institution, not evil; paternalistic, not pernicious. There are no whips and chains to keep slaves in line, no slave trade ripping families apart, no rape of black women by their slave masters and overseers. In the cinematic South of "GWTW," field hands are happy workers and house slaves are beloved members of the family, while for the planters, life is genteel and sophisticated. No matter that in real life plantations made up only a small part of the antebellum South and most Southern whites did not own slaves. And no matter that slaves resisted their condition in countless ways, from minor acts of sabotage to outright escape or rebellion.
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As for Reconstruction, "GWTW" portrays it as an era in which the defeated South is further imperiled by freed blacks, the occupying Union army, Northern "carpetbaggers" and Southern "scalawags," and is saved — along with the honor of Southern womanhood — by KKK-like vigilantes. In reality, Reconstruction offered newly freed slaves their first opportunity to live independent lives in a democratic society, only to have their hopes dashed by the resistance of white Southerners, the lack of economic opportunity and the abandonment of support by the federal government.
Some may try to dismiss these criticisms of "GWTW" as present-day "political correctness." But this would ignore the fact that even in 1939, when segregation was still legal in the South and common practice in much of the North, African-Americans were critical of "GWTW" and its stereotyped characters like Butterfly McQueen's Prissy. Two examples from African-American newspapers of the day: A writer in the Pittsburgh Courier complained that the film "depicted a world (in which) Negroes are ignorant, incapable and superstitious," while the Chicago Defender's William L. Patterson wrote that the movie was a "weapon of terror against black America."
Certainly, "GWTW" continued the deplorable Hollywood practice in the 1930s and '40s of using African-Americans as comic relief in films, as in Mammy's sassy asides or a house slave's awkward chase after an "uppity" chicken.
On the other hand, many African-Americans at the time were pleased that a lot of black actors secured work in the film and proud that Hattie McDaniel, who played the house slave Mammy, became the first African-American to win an Academy Award. Selznick also deserves credit for toning down the most racially insensitive aspects of Mitchell's book, including her use of racial epithets, and ensuring that "GWTW" avoided the more virulent racial attitudes of D.W. Griffith's silent epic, "The Birth of a Nation."
Although I am unable to put aside these factors when viewing "GWTW," and also have some problems with the characters of Melanie (too goody-goody to believe) and Ashley (how could Scarlett possibly desire him more than Rhett?), it is also undeniable that the movie includes scenes that deserve their indelible place in movie history. Scarlett's first dance with Rhett, the powerful image of thousands of wounded Confederate soldiers lying on the ground and the harrowing buggy ride through the burning streets of Atlanta are all examples of superior moviemaking. The performances of Gable, Leigh and McDaniel are justifiably immortal.