To those who fear further attacks on what the president calls “our history and our heritage,” this news via National Review’s Kyle Smith must sound like a heavy boot falling:
A Memphis theater that screens Gone with the Wind annually announced that it is withdrawing it from future showings. At this moment that decision may look like a trivial detail from the silly-season panic attached to all art works with historically uncomfortable connotations, but I’ll wager it’s just the beginning of what figures to be a devastating war on this film. I expect Gone with the Wind will disappear from sight within a few years.
Smith goes on to defend GWTW as precisely like the Confederate monuments that are beginning to come down all over the South, an “indelible part of cinema history” that errs in romanticizing slavery. But unlike those monuments, “Gone with the Wind exists in a purely private space. Those who find it offensive can easily avoid it.”
The public/private distinction Smith draws makes some sense. But his defense of GWTW, like the usual conservative case for keeping monuments of Confederate generals and political leaders around, misses the more contemporary function the movie (and the book on which it was based) played and still plays in promoting a Reconstruction myth that was central to the maintenance of Jim Crow.
Yes, the author of Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, romanticized slavery and painted an indelible picture of the antebellum South as a sort of lost paradise for the white planter class to which most of the main white characters belonged. But the rather hard-to-miss point of the beloved book (as recently as 2014, the second-favorite book of Americans, trailing only the Bible) and of the massively successful movie (it won ten Oscars in 1940) was that the antebellum South and the society the Confederacy failed to preserve is gone with the wind. Indeed, it’s made reasonably clear by the sardonic prewar remarks of Rhett Butler that Mitchell thought secession was an act of folly. What GWTW really celebrates is the new society of white survivors — exemplified by Scarlett O’Hara — who not only had to dig themselves out of the destruction and poverty wrought by the Civil War itself, but had to overcome the Reconstruction that came in its wake.
Atlanta native Mitchell was certainly aware that her city’s symbol was the phoenix rising from the ashes (so designated in 1888, when Reconstruction had been finally vanquished and Jim Crow was being fully instituted). The end of the novel roughly coincides with the waning years of Reconstruction, and its final words from Scarlett O’Hara, “Tomorrow is another day,” is a faithful representation of white southern longing for redemption. Mitchell herself in a 1936 interview described O’Hara’s postwar life as encompassing “the terrible days of Reconstruction and the story carries her, and Atlanta, up to the time when the Carpetbaggers had been run out of Georgia and people could begin living their normal lives again.”
When Mitchell wrote the novel (an instant sensation that was snapped up quickly by Hollywood for a much-anticipated movie) in the 1930s, Jim Crow was firmly established, as was Atlanta’s self-promotion as the center of a “New South” that preserved the best of the past (e.g., white supremacy) while looking ever forward. Some of the cruder Reconstruction mythology from the book — e.g., the Ku Klux Klan righteously wreaking vengeance on an ex-slave who sexually assaults Scarlett — was blurred in the movie. But the triumphant former Confederacy was evident throughout, and the premiere of the movie in 1939 became a major civic event in Jim Crow Georgia; a state holiday was declared; a parade of cast members down Atlanta’s Peachtree Street was held — excluding, of course, its African-American actors.
Rereleases of the film — especially the one in 1961, the centennial year of the Confederacy, which I vividly remember from my own childhood in Georgia — coincided with the southern resistance against civil rights, deeply rooted in the neo-Confederate myths about Reconstruction. So far as I can recall, none of the white southern celebrants of the movie and book took the trouble of distinguishing fact from fiction in Mitchell’s depiction of Reconstruction as a calamity. By then GWTW’s view of the subject — itself an echo of the even more seminal account presented in the pioneering film Birth of a Nation — was being taught as history, and not only in the South.
Molly Haskell rightly emphasized the neo-Confederate utility of GWTW in 2009:
[A]s with “Birth of a Nation,” the half-truths of the ﬁlm both encapsulated and made history: Margaret Mitchell was deeply inﬂuenced by D. W. Grifﬁth, and both ﬁlms’ portraits of Reconstruction as an unalloyed horror became the standard view, with the terrors posed by integration more potent than any political countermovement. It awaited later decades and revisionist historians like Eric Foner to set the record straight. “Gone With the Wind”’s portrait of a noble South, martyred to a Lost Cause, gave the region a kind of moral ascendancy that allowed it to hold the rest of the country hostage as the “Dixiﬁcation” virus spread west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Generations of canny politicians, native sons espousing conservative and racist politics, dominated Washington from Reconstruction up until Civil Rights.
The significance of GWTW as a neo-Confederate political symbol is missing from Kyle Smith’s presentation of Gone With the Wind as an innocent piece of brilliant cinema and anachronistic history that’s under attack by the forces of political correctness.
Smith’s hardly alone: Social media has blown up with protests of the Memphis theater’s action, which no one should confuse with “censorship,” since there are hundreds of great movies that have never been given the privilege of annual rescreenings.
Perhaps the best thing to do with GWTW is to ask anyone who shows the film to put together a prelude or postlude — or maybe a little presentation for the intermission that is usually provided — that interrogates the film’s presentation of history. When neo-Confederacy as a cultural and political movement aimed at vindicating white privilege is finally gone with the wind, perhaps then we can stop worrying about the politically driven books and movies that contributed to its power.