Actually, it turns out some people do give a damn.
The new streaming service HBO Max has temporarily pulled “Gone with the Wind” from its schedule this week after writer-director John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave,” “Let It Fall”) penned an editorial in the Los Angeles Times that called the 1939 classic a film “that glorifies the antebellum south” and when “not ignoring the horrors of slavery pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.”
To which some of us are saying: What took so long?
First things first: No one’s talking about “canceling” “Gone with the Wind.” Ridley has asked for — and HBO Max appears to have agreed to — reintroducing the film to the schedule along with other, less romanticized movies about slavery and the Confederacy; perhaps a filmed discussion about the narratives we build around our history and why, and how they need to be challenged.
Ridley’s asking for context. “Gone with the Wind” could sorely use it.
The reason this has been so long coming (and it’s not like this is the first time the subject has been raised, only the first time many white audiences are hearing about it) is that “GWTW” has been an unassailable pop-culture totem for so many decades. Its importance is deeply etched into the history of the movies: The best-selling novel that producer David O. Selznick turned into America’s Topic #1 for three years as he searched for a “new girl” to play Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled Southern belle who is humbled by the Civil War and badass Rhett Butler. A four-hour epic melodrama that was the greatest blockbuster in Hollywood annals and that still stands as the biggest money-maker of all time when adjusted for inflation. (That alone should tell you how necessary “Wind” is to the American imagination.)
Even if producer Selznick was an independent maverick, “Gone with the Wind” represents the zenith of the American studio era. It’s proof of the system, and white audiences have long grown up with it as a cultural must-see. In doing so, too few have questioned its rosy representation of the pre-Civil War South, or the way that representation came to stand in for reality in the minds of generations of American moviegoers. “GWTW” — novel and movie both — depicts a society that was built on the backs of the stolen and unwilling, and it erases that primal sin by replacing it with a very good “women’s picture,” a phrase that’s hardly an insult in my book.
(For what it’s worth, “Wind” has rarely been held up as a work of cinematic genius. It’s been more properly considered great popcorn, and it looks pretty simple-minded next to, say, 1942′s “Casablanca” — a much better candidate for “proof of the system” and a movie that tells the story of how Humphrey Bogart’s Rick came to join the Antifa of his day. By contrast, a co-worker who didn’t see “Gone With the Wind” until he was in his 30s says it felt like watching a World War II movie where you were meant to root for the Nazis.)
How could we not see what seems so obvious now? Because we were entertained by Vivien Leigh’s mercurial, indomitable Scarlett and Clark Gable’s godlike Rhett? Or because the narrative so soothingly erased the pain and suffering of the people who made Scarlett’s “vanished” life at Tara possible? Because “Gone With the Wind” gave many people the American story line they wanted to hear — a guilt-free nostalgia bath in glorious Technicolor?
The wheel of cultural evolution moves slowly, especially for white audiences in matters of race. When I was taking college Film 101 classes back in the 1970s, D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) was offered up as a cinematic milestone with a pesky race problem. Now it’s more broadly understood to be a toxic screed whose unparalleled commercial success opened a new chapter in American racism. (For one thing, “Nation” was the direct cause of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan, a group that had long been consigned to history when the film came out. And many of those Confederate statues we’re fighting over? Another post-“Birth” phenomenon.)
“Gone with the Wind” is a softer but no less ruinous perversion of history, and sometimes it takes a child to see it. I showed the movie to my daughters when they were young — 9 and 11, I think — and while they were well-steeped in old movies by then, they didn’t fully take to this one. “Why does she talk so funny?” they asked about Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy, and so we had to talk about the way all old Hollywood films depict Black people with cutesy, derisive condescension.
I had to tell them that while Hattie McDaniel was the first Black actor to win an Academy Award, for her portrayal of the maternal house slave Mammy, she wasn’t allowed to attend the movie’s Atlanta premiere and had to sit at a segregated table for two at the awards ceremony. (As a further insult, the other cast members went to an after-party at a whites-only club.)
That’s context, and that’s what John Ridley is asking for. Such discussions are what all moviegoers, all cultural consumers of all colors, deserve. And not only about “Gone With the Wind” but about every media narrative that purports to tell the truth about race in America while aiming mostly at making white audiences feel good. It’s very telling that the number one movie to be streamed in the weeks following the death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer is the 2011 box office hit “The Help,” in which the Black maids played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are brought into the Civil Rights era through the kindly administrations of a young Southern writer played by Emma Stone.
My former Globe colleague Wesley Morris gently eviscerated that movie in a Pulitzer Prize-winning review, one that opened with the image of a Mammy figurine he’d recently encountered in a Southern restaurant, a figurine that was emotionally defended by the well-to-do white woman who owned the place. He drew a line from “Gone With the Wind” to “The Help,” in other words, just as Ridley is telling us to look at the 1939 classic — to really look at it — from where we are now. “Tomorrow is another day,” Scarlett O’Hara famously declaims at the end of Selznick’s movie. That day is here.