What Are We to Do With Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?

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Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone With the Wind. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Gone With the Wind is one of cinema’s most seductive confections. It’s a moving story of a woman’s determination to control her own destiny against the odds of the crumbling world around her, an indelible love story, and one of the most gorgeous films Hollywood has ever produced, thanks to the work of set designer William Cameron Menzies and cinematographer Ernest Haller. In a memo during the preproduction of the 1939 epic, producer David O. Selznick — who shepherded the project through directorial changes and other calamities — referred to the novel it’s based on as “the American Bible.” Selznick was a making a ploy to bypass any objections by film censor Will Hays in order to get “damn” in the now-infamous dialogue at the end of the film. But Selznick’s bit of salesmanship takes on a double meaning today, becoming a prescient description for the film. Nestled in its visual splendor is a slippery sort of racism that is surprising for what it says, meta-textually, about the ways America has yet to reckon with its second original sin. More than any American film about the Civil War, Gone With the Wind reveals the cunning skill with which white supremacy creates its own myths.

The extent to which Gone With the Wind has seeped into American culture is massive. It has been endlessly parodied, homaged, copied, and plucked clean for inspiration. Its clever subversion and updating of certain archetypes puts any film dealing with similar subject matter in its shadow. Its dialogue (“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”) and visual landscapes (the Tara plantation; Scarlett swanning around the frame in gorgeous gowns; the profiles of its lead actors moments before they kiss) have seared themselves into the cultural imagination. It has always been as beloved as it has been reviled and criticized, and in the wake of the Charlottesville riots and larger conversations on race, it once again finds itself at the center of controversy. Recently, a Memphis, Tennessee, theater, the Orpheum, pulled a screening of the film, citing community input and “insensitivity.” This quickly launched multiple conversations about the place of the film within Hollywood history, dredging up older considerations of its racial insensitivity. Despite the fever pitch of this debate, Gone With the Wind is not being banned, like Disney did with the 1946 film Song of the South, which isn’t available to stream or buy anywhere in the United States. (While the film has been rereleased in theaters several times in the wake of its 1946 premiere and is available to buy in foreign markets, it has never been made available Stateside, with Disney CEO Robert Iger deeming it “offensive.”)

Given its availability on any platform possible to watch a film, and its towering status, Gone With the Wind is under no threat of actual censorship, or of being wholly forgotten. But there is something gallingly dishonest about the current conversations surrounding the film, which mention it in the same breath as the Confederate monuments rightfully being torn down, and in some cases destroyed by citizens. Some have argued for Gone With the Wind to be viewed a Confederate monument, and others against. My position skews more toward the latter camp: Whereas these monuments have one message — to celebrate and uphold a painful time in American history, whose scars linger to this day — a film, especially one with so many influences as Gone With the Wind, rarely holds a single message.

Treating Gone With the Wind as a relic that should be walled off in museums, as former New York Post critic Lou Lumenick suggested in a 2015 piece, may seem like the corrective necessary after the Academy Awards its garnered, its staggering financial success, and decades of worship. It would be simpler, under this guise, to brand Gone With the Wind as a Confederate monument that, despite its gorgeous construction, is too saddled by racism to enjoy, and should be resigned to the past. But that is a half measure. It lets modern Hollywood off the hook for displaying similar, casual racism, albeit in different forms, and modern white people from understanding the thorny truths the film holds. Gone With the Wind is not only the most successful Hollywood film about slavery, it’s the most instructive. Not because it dutifully recreates actual history — far from it actually. Better than any film, Gone With the Wind is a searing, accidental portrait about the American mythology around slavery. The mythology Gone With the Wind extols about cheery, simple-minded slaves who are unerringly faithful to their abusers and the beauty of a lost South isn’t trapped in the amber of another time. It exists today in the loathsome, venomous beating heart at the core of American life. If Gone With the Wind were consigned to the past, it would make it easier for many to forget how indicative it is of our present.

D.W. Griffith’s silent epic The Birth of a Nation is often spoken of alongside Gone With the Wind, given their shared qualities: innovation, controversy, and a dramatically dishonest portrait of American slavery. The Birth of a Nation is an unparalleled piece of propaganda that uses white actors in blackface to frame black people as savages and buffoons. It isn’t just vile, it has been credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Where Birth of a Nation inspires violence and the perpetuation of virulent racism, Gone With the Wind inspires complacency — its mythology echoes today in a more casual form of bigotry that ignores the humanity of black people, while scrubbing white people clean of any wrongdoing.

Despite all that, Gone With the Wind has had a curious place in my heart for years. It’s a film that brings me joy given its sheer beauty, craft, and towering place in film history. It has countless virtues, from the love story at its heart to its grand scope, which still remains specific in how it understands the emotional realities of its cast, and Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh at the height of their prowess. It is both tragic and endearing, electrifying in its romanticism and delightful in its humor. Whenever I see a particular shade of red or stand on the land I call home in rural Louisiana, sometimes my mind can’t help but wander to Gone With the Wind. It casts a spell that is hard not to be beguiled by. It’s this entrancing nature that makes its racism so tricky. Slaves are grinning, dumb fools, loyal to a cause that runs on their subservience. The film ignores the brutal reality of slavery and the Civil War in order to create a fairy tale about Southern perseverance through one Southern belle’s becoming.

It may seem curious for a black Southern woman like me to have affection for a film that ignores the horrors my ancestors endured in order to create the most iconic Southern belle of all time, that unabashedly celebrates the South’s greatest sins. Loving film, both classic and modern, can require a bifurcated approach (especially as a black woman), acknowledging the artistic wonder and its role in often supporting oppression. For me, this racial dimension to the film isn’t merely an intellectual exercise or something I brush past in the news, but a lived reality. Gone With the Wind, in this light, becomes a way for me to study and understand the ways white people spin fables from an obstructed view of the past and present.

It’s also a movie that’s riddled with contradictions. Gone With the Wind elides historical truths and favors emotional ones from a white perspective, but it is hard to ignore that Mammy (played by Hattie McDaniel, who became the first black actor to win an Academy Award for her performance) is the soul and guiding force of the film. It’s also impossible to look past the fact that she brings to life one of the most troublesome and enduring stereotypes that have beset black women since slavery. But McDaniel’s career and position within Gone With the Wind actually proves to be a useful way to understand the film. While supporting actor Butterfly McQueen (who played the manic fool, Prissy) resented the film and the business of Hollywood for its racism, McDaniel chose to remain mostly apolitical to advance her career. McDaniel inspired actors like Mo’Nique, who paid homage to her when she won her Academy Award decades later for Precious. McDaniel has been viewed as a key step forward for black actors in the industry and a woman who put career success over the needs of her community. She’s said to have famously quipped when then-NAACP head Walter White critiqued her, “I would rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 being one.” Her support for Gone With the Wind in the face of vehement questioning from the black community exists at a nexus of issues. The same can be said for Gone With the Wind itself, which both fails to acknowledge the lived reality of the slaves that made women like Scarlett’s life possible, while also being a vehicle for McDaniel’s success.

So, what are we to make of Gone With the Wind and its blinkered perspective on history? How can we reckon with its failures as a historical document if America has yet to do the same with the poisonous roots that make such films possible in the first place? Some have suggested that Gone With the Wind screenings be accompanied by more evenhanded lectures that take its problems to task, which is a somewhat useful gesture. But these conversations have been happening since the film was released in 1939. It’s also important to not act as if the failings of Gone With the Wind are an outlier from a more racist Hollywood past.

Hollywood has always loved presenting itself as a liberal mecca. (Take George Clooney’s 2006 Oscar speech: “You know we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood, every once in a while. It’s probably a good thing,” he said. “We’re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was only being whispered. We talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular.”) But Gone With the Wind exists on a continuum of Hollywood racism that includes the whitewashing in recent films like Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange; still-beloved works like Dumbo and Breakfast at Tiffany’s; the unequal pay that besets women of color; and issues people of color have simply making films and finding a place in cinema’s canon.

Still, there is often the perception that Hollywood exists on a path of perpetual progress — that Hollywood today is more considerate and politically aware than its forebears. Case in point: Sitting alongside this debate about Gone With the Wind is also a curious name-checking of the Steve McQueen–helmed 2013 film 12 Years a Slave. This routine, which uses 12 Years a Slave as a cudgel to highlight the moral and historical failings of Gone With the Wind, isn’t new. As Frank Rich noted in a New York Magazine feature from 2013:

“… film critics as different as those of the Times, the New York Post, and Hollywood Life felt they had to address the continued sway of Gone With the Wind in their raves of 12 Years a Slave. All offered some variation on the thesis that the movie was, at long last, an antidote to (as Manohla Dargis put it) ‘all the fiddle-dee-dee’ of its nearly 75-year-old predecessor, the film that was supposed to have been trampled into the dust by Roots more than a generation ago. Maybe, but tomorrow is always another day at Tara, and it’s probably wishful thinking that 12 Years a Slave will consign Mitchell’s ­magnolia-scented view of the South to oblivion any more than the far more widely disseminated Roots did.”

A video essay from 2014, which made the rounds again during the GWTW controversy, intersplices scenes from Gone With the Wind and 12 Years a Slave to argue the former’s dishonesty and the latter’s import.

An op-ed in the New Orleans Times-Picayune last week used the video to argue: “In the kindest reading, ‘Gone With the Wind’ is romanticized fiction. In a more realistic assessment, it is nothing but “Lost Cause” Confederate propaganda. If it’s history you are looking for, I suggest ‘12 Years A Slave,’ the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. […] That is history. That is truth.”

But who is looking for history when watching narrative film? No film should be a proxy for historical record. Furthermore, hewing to a more truthful representation of historical fact narratively says nothing about the ways a film is shot or scored, which can easily warp the facts in any way the artists making it see fit. Film does operate as a history of industry mores, audience desires, and societal constraints. Touting 12 Years a Slave as a more important historic document and film than Gone With the Wind engenders several questions. Namely, what do we expect and need from films concerning this swath of time in American history? How are we to truly understand a film if we ignore its context?

Despite its bloody rendition of the conditions of slavery, I believe 12 Years a Slave is an easier watch for liberal whites given the distancing effect of the violence it displays. It’s easy to look upon the whipped backs of Solomon Northup and other characters and think, Well, I’m not that bad. I do not enforce such violence. This emotional distance allows modern white audiences to indict not their own bigotry, but those forms they feel are squarely in the past or wholly outside of their social circle. When watching Gone With the Wind, white audiences today who are willing to examine their racist failings must also examine how they specifically propagate the mythology that upholds white supremacy, even if they don’t have the particular delusions that exist among white nationalists and people in the South, crying in horror at Confederate monuments being torn down. What makes Gone With the Wind’s racism so important and difficult to taxonomize is the deftness of its characterization. The white characters in the film, including minor bit players, feel real, complex, and human in ways many period epics fail to conceptualize. There are heroes it can be hard not to root for. For all her cruelty and selfishness, Scarlett’s prickly nature make her a fascinating anti-heroine. Yet everyone — including Melanie, one of the most selfless and naïvely angelic women ever portrayed in film — are still complicit in, and directly benefit from, the enslavement of black people. As an audience, you are captivated by them, and even root for their triumphs, while still being unable to forget the darkness teeming underneath the surface of the gorgeously wrought antebellum society Gone With the Wind brings to life. Their great capacity for racism exists in tandem with their own admirable qualities, making them frustratingly human and trickier to demonize than the more one-dimensionally villainous white characters in other slavery epics. The same can be said of white people today who, no matter how powerful they are as allies or how moved by films like 12 Years a Slave, benefit from the horrors that have existed against black people in this country since its beginnings.

To be black in America is to exist in a liminal space. This is the only home I know, but I am acutely aware that the distinctly American triumphs that Gone With the Wind upholds doesn’t include Americans like me — it exists based on our subjugation. And to pass off the film as a relic and Confederate monument of a cinematic past ignores how its tactics exist today — it isn’t just Gone With the Wind that needs a reckoning, but Hollywood, and America itself.

What Do We Do With Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?