Gone with the Wind and Finally Facing a Complicated Legacy

We examine why HBO Max needed to pull Gone with the Wind from its streaming service, and why it needs to eventually come back.

Photo: WarnerMedia

HBO Max made a splash earlier this month when it debuted its service with an inaugural line-up of cinema classics. From Warner Bros. crown jewels like Casablanca to major Criterion Collection gems such as 8 1/2, the bench was deep. High among these films, however, was MGM’s golden age catalogue, which included Gone with the Wind. Still, technically the most successful movie ever made, the Scarlett O’Hara epic even played on television commercials for the new streaming service.

But as of Wednesday morning, Gone with the Wind has been removed from HBO Max with no clear indication when it might return. This move comes after astute criticism by no less than John Ridley, the Oscar winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, who took to The Los Angeles Times to consider Gone with the Wind’s complicated legacy as a piece of Southern Revisionism that glorified the Antebellum South and the institution of slavery it was predicated on.

“It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color,” Ridley wrote. “It is a film that, as part of the narrative of the ‘Lost Cause,’ romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was — a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings.”

HBO Max removed the film this morning but stated that it would eventually return  to the streaming service “with a discussion of its historical context.” 

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I hope it does. It is understandable to take Gone with the Wind down at this moment in our culture when millions are protesting in the streets against systemic racism and the police brutality against Black men and People of Color. And the Southern revisionist myth of a “Lost Cause” that informed Margaret Mitchell when she wrote the Gone with the Wind novel in 1936 was the same myth used to reinforce Jim Crow laws in the South, and the Confederate statues that were built there and that are now being torn down.

When we spoke with Spike Lee several years ago about including one of Gone with the Wind’s most iconic moments in BlacKkKlansman—the scene where Vivien Leigh wades through thousands of extras representing the dead and dying Confederacy—Lee said, “I can’t front, that’s a great shot. You crane [out] and all of a sudden the tattered stars and bars of the Confederate flag appears, we had to start with that. [But] I’m a product of the New York public school in Brooklyn, New York from kindergarten to high school. We had a class trip to see Gone with the Wind… and the images of Hattie McDaniel [as Mammy] of Butterfly McQueen [as Prissy saying], ‘I know nothing about birthing no babies!’ That was very troubling to me. And there was no discussion about the imagery that I saw as a fourth or fifth grader.”

Beyond the incredulity of showing Gone with the Wind as history to school children—school children in New York City, no less!—Lee’s experience underlines the decades-long refusal to fully discuss and analyze Gone with the Wind’s legacy, ranging from his childhood experiences to AFI putting it among the Top 10 films in Hollywood history, to premiering on HBO Max with no context.

In his day, Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick thought he was making a progressive film, simply because it wasn’t as racist as D.W. Griffith’s KKK love letter, Birth of a Nation (1915). Unlike that truly insidious movie that brought the Klan back to popularity in the 20th century, Selznick cast actual Black actors in Gone with Wind and removed overt references to the Klan (who are present in the book), while dialing down some of author Mitchell’s most blatantly racist passages. He also campaigned Hattie McDaniel, an African American woman who stole many of her scenes, in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars, where she won—a fact that only 15 years ago George Clooney was still patting Hollywood on the back about during his own Oscar acceptance speech.

Of course she won for playing a slave named after one of the most notorious stereotypes from blackfaced minstrel shows, “Mammy.” Her depiction of Mammy, while an improvement on the book and excellent performance in its own right, is still a stereotype that even more insidiously defends the practice of slavery because she is presented as essentially part of the O’Hara family: a woman with no extended Black family of her own, but who dotes on ‘Miss Scarlett’ and doesn’t even think of leaving Tara after the war and being free. And while McDaniel won an Oscar for the role, it was only after Selznick accepted the racist segregationist policies of Mitchell’s hometown of Atlanta. When the film premiered there in 1939, neither McDaniel nor any of the other Black performers in the film were allowed to attend. And the other African American actors didn’t have a role as relatively nuanced as McDaniel when they played slaves happy in their work.

Gone with the Wind is a racist movie predicated on a lie. It is also an excellent work of moviemaking with stunning Technicolor imagery, classic sweeping music, phenomenal acting, and a relatively revolutionary feminist side since its protagonist is an unrepentant anti-heroine who achieves her ends through amoral means and is never truly punished for her actions. Seeing such a woman leading a blockbuster would be rare today (sadly), and as with the movie’s inherent racism, Gone with the Wind’s groundbreaking depiction of women in American cinema is also worth being studied and taught… but in a discussion that fully explores how the movie is a product of its time, and all the good and bad therein.

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Locking it away in a vault—something Ridley stressed he does not want—would be a mistake. That errs on the erasure of history and picking and choosing the past events we want to acknowledge, which is its own form of delusional revisionism. Historical artifacts, no matter how uncomfortable, should be learned from, not ignored or hidden. This would also mean hiding from future generations the performance of the first Oscar winning African American, who herself was the daughter of slaves and who said she saw her own grandmother in Mammy.

WarnerMedia should not turn the film into a Song of the South situation—the far more racist Walt Disney movie that the studio refuses to acknowledge or remove from its vault, even as it still profits off the movie’s popular “Zippity Doo Dah” song and a marquee theme park ride, Splash Mountain, based on its racist caricatures. But to one day bring Gone with the Wind back as a teaching tool that can unpack its problems? That’d be a hell of a streaming feature.