It is as surprising to me as it is to you that I am jumping to the defence of Gone With the Wind. A prefatory disclaimer: I do not care for the film (Scarlett’s a real piece of work and it’s just too long). Because of this, I have seen the film once, maybe twice at the most. My memory of its substance is hazy, and the analysis that follows will, regrettably, be based upon these hazy recollections. However, I know what people are saying when they say it is a racist film. From what I can gather, there are two main strands to the argument:
- The depiction of African-Americans
- The romanticisation of the Antebellum South
I am hardly in the best position to comment on 1, as I am not myself a black person of 1861, 1939, or the present day. Nor am I an historian of these periods. I do not condone offensive black stereotyping by any stretch of the imagination. I also believe, however, that Gone with the Wind attracted an unusual degree of attention by virtue of its enormous commercial success. To me, it is not any more, or less, racist, than other films of its time. Not that this makes it unproblematic, but it does change the conversation. It is not a film that should be singled out like, for example, The Birth of a Nation, which was not only staggeringly racist even in its own time, but almost single-handedly resurrected the KKK. If ever there was a groundbreaking piece of cinema that should be approached with due caution, it is that film.
Point 2 is more subtle, and, I agree, dangerous. It is also undeniable. By its very name, Gone with the Wind, the film is a lament for things lost. The Georgia of Gone with the Wind is dazzling and opulent. The film’s heroes rise and fall to the score of Max Steiner – a soaring epic full of longing and beauty. This makes Gone with the Wind troublesome, like any film that romanticises a world that was much more cruel than it lets on.
Much has already been written about the particular circumstances of the film, as well as Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar win and subsequent artistic legacy. My point, instead, is primarily historiographical.
It is my firm conviction that history is not to be judged from the prospect of our time. Of late, this cardinal rule is being broken with a worrying degree of frequency. 1939 is a different time from today. 1861 is a different time from today. History isn’t black and white, but full of nuance, contradiction and multiplicity. The Antebellum South had a cause, and it was lost. A society was irrevocably changed by war. This same society was inextricably tied to the institution of slavery. Praise and condemnation are both permissible, but one should never forget one observes from the vantage of a very different time and place. The only wrong course is to pretend it never happened.