Gone and back again.
Last week, the streaming service HBO Max announced it would remove Gone With the Wind from its library because of its concern that the 1939 motion picture romanticized slavery. But the new streaming platform now says it will return Gone With the Wind to its catalog with an added introduction that will provide some much-needed historical context.
Jacqueline Stewart, a professor of film at University of Chicago, and a frequent Turner Classic Movies contributor, will provide the historical preface. Stewart admits that HBO had “put this film up (for streaming) before giving it the context it needs today.” She added, “I think it needed it even before the unrest, and before the heightened concerns about racial inequities.”
The Racist Irony of “Gone With the Wind”
The 1939 film has long enjoyed classic status, and, adjusted for inflation, is the highest-grossing motion picture of all time. As one of the earliest features to premiere in Technicolor, it is a hugely influential part of the cinema canon, despite its deeply racist themes and images.
To many, the movie glamorizes the pre-Civil War South, offering a sympathetic view of slave owners while belittling the African-Americans they enslaved. At the same time, the film produced Hollywood’s first black Oscar winner in Hattie McDaniel. She was not allowed to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress, because the venue was segregated.
Much like the American South, which was built on the backs of black slaves, McDaniel’s Oscar represented how important she was to the movie’s success. Even 80 years after the Civil War, she was not considered dignified enough to accept the award.
The MGM film was produced by whites for an all-white audience, which explains the most problematic aspect of the film, its depiction of enslaved people as happy with their situation and unconditionally loving of their white masters. But Gone With the Wind is not an isolated instance. Many movies from that period did the same thing.
The film also perpetuates a myth known as “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy.” This ideology holds that the South was a heroic, morally upright player in the Civil War and that it was justified in defending its way of life. Rich, pro-slavery characters were presented as brave fighters, romantic souls and beautiful Southern belles. They created a story about the grandness of the South, conveniently leaving out discussions of racism.
A Call for Context
The issues above inspired screenwriter John Ridley, who penned 12 Years a Slave, to call out HBO Max for promoting Gone With the Wind. Writing for The Los Angeles Times, he said it was “painful” to scroll through the platform “and see it elevate one film in particular that has helped to perpetuate the racism that’s causing angry and grieving Americans to take to the streets.”
HBO heard this criticism and acknowledged its mistake. In a statement, HBO Max said that the film is, “a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society. These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”
HBO Max has taken the film down, but will make it available for streaming once again in the coming weeks, this time with Jacqueline Stewart’s preface. The film professor has said that she does not endorse taking down Gone With the Wind permanently, in the way Disney-Plus has buried the very racist Song of the South.
“In 2015 I co-taught a course at Northwestern University with my colleague, Miriam Petty, for the 100th anniversary of The Birth of a Nation,” Stewart noted, referring to another film that worked to glorify the Antebellum South. “It is crucial we look back at these films. These were huge, very expensive, very popular films, with really long lives. They were protested at the time they were made. And it’s instructive for us now, as we figure out what we want from our media, and how to change the representation of what we see on screen.”
Calling the film “a prime text for examining expressions of white supremacy in popular culture” Stewart notes that in the proper context, Gone With the Wind can help us understand the problematic ways in which mainstream history has been told. It can help develop a more realistic and critical understanding of our nation’s past.
Some have compared the preservation of Gone With the Wind to the presence of Confederate statues, which inaccurately glorify the indefensible. But in both cases, understanding the ways in which previous generations tried to memorialize the past can help us better comprehend how our own collective attitudes have evolved. We can study Gone With the Wind without agreeing with its themes. In doing so, we understand the glamorized and often ignorant ways in which our ancestors tried to tell the American story.