Should we be talking about “Gone with the Wind”? Of course, and especially now. We have to talk about “Gone with the Wind” because the United States may finally be making its revolution on the black question.
The “Black Lives Matter” movement sheds a necessary light on the historical and systemic racism that has always plagued this country, and perhaps, I hope, begins to tear it down.
We have to talk about “Gone with the Wind” because thinking that the “Black Lives Matter” movement is about police violence is wrong. Police violence is but one serious symptom of a much more entrenched problem: institutionalized racism in the United States.
We have to talk about “Gone with the Wind” because not understanding that racism has always been an economic and political system is a mistake. Slavery was the very economic foundation of the southern plantations of the United States, since slaves were nothing other than free labor.
We have to talk about it because “Gone with the Wind” is an monumental classic in Western cinematography: almost everyone has seen this film at least once in their life – often young – and the whole world knows who Scarlett and Rhett are, and they have inspired generations.
We have to talk about it, because the two real questions boil down to these: which of us young spectators saw Mammy as anything other than a helpful, dedicated nanny and part of the family? What young spectator of the film saw the Civil War depicted in the film other than as the romantic last stand of a chivalrous society standing up to this rude scum from the North?
That’s it, nobody.
And this is the crux of the matter: I will never let my children watch “Gone with the Wind” alone. Quite simply because the film proceeds to an unbearable romanticization when one knows the historical reality, and that it does not propose anything other than a stinking revisionism regarding the fate of the slaves and the notions of “Cause” and “Old South”.
Even if the origins of the Civil War were multiple, the abolition of slavery was the main reason. See, like some essayists, the Civil War as the romantic last stand of an elegant society standing up to the industrialization of an ill-bred North, has no historical reality.
“Gone with the Wind” often returns to the notion of “Cause” (or “Lost Cause” after the war is over), for which every southerner fights and watches with immense nostalgia. The protagonists, whether Scarlett, Ashley or Melanie, often use these terms, and lead an uninformed audience to believe that life before was good, beautiful, full of gallantry and chivalrous deeds. There is a desire for aristocracy and nobility in this posture, which hardly existed.
To make viewers believe that the Southern fight was aimed at the political independence of southern states threatened by an industrialized North is nothing more than a revisionist theory regarded as such by the majority of historians.
I wondered (
because I like to play devil’s advocate, even against myself) if Scarlett’s story could have taken place at another time, during another war, and yet fully keep its impact. Well, no I don’t think so, because the narrative arc is certainly that of a woman who does everything to survive a conflict, but the narrative arc is also that of a woman who does not want anything more than returning to a lost world, that of the “Old South”. Let’s talk about this “Old South”.
Its wealth came from the cultivation and export of tobacco, cotton and sugar cane through plantations. The economic model of these plantations was based on slavery, since the slaves embodied a free labor force.
Without the power of life and death conferred by law on planters over their slaves, the entire economic system of plantations in the South would have collapsed. In addition to the risk of death, physical violence was omnipresent, since the Black Codes largely authorized – even advocated – the use of violence, be it whipping, shackling, hanging, beating, burning, mutilation, branding, rape, castration or imprisonment.
The living conditions of the slaves are more accurately termed survival conditions: deprivation was daily, additional works was commonplace for people who already worked 12 to 15 hours a day, and who lived in huts of 25 square meters on average for 6 people. Most slave states prohibited literacy training for slaves, who otherwise lived under constant threat of losing a family member if the owner decided to sell one.
Not to mention the regular sexual abuse of female slaves, by white owners, family members or supervisors.
Therefore, to present in “Gone with the Wind” a marvelous, chivalrous South, dotted with incredible plantations, populated by gentlemen and ladies, where gallantry prevails over the poorly educated scum of the North, is a little shocking.
The film knowingly fails to mention that this wonderful world, these plantations, this incredible wealth of the O’Hara and Wilkes families, are built on the blood and death of slaves. Better yet, the first minutes of the film detach a virginal Scarlett in her white dress, from the black and red reality of the previous minutes.
Better, if we show black people, they are, well, very happy: the first scenes of the film are pastoral: the slaves peacefully accomplish their working day, there is no foreman, no driver, no chain, no whip in sight. They’re nice, they’re a bit dumb, and Mammy is the surrogate mother-nanny everyone would like to have. They are children, who are treated nicely (if I am to believe
that stupid Ashley).
When the scenes are not pastoral, they portray black people as deceitful, lying, not very capable – I take Prissy as an example.
When the scenes are not pastoral, they suggest the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan, I take for example the nocturnal raid of the southerners gentlemen to go and kill the Yankee and black scum who dared to lay hands on the white woman, Scarlett in that case. With this scene, “Gone with the Wind” fits perfectly into the lineage of the film “Birth of a Nation”, released in 1920, which I forced myself to watch and which lays the foundations of the black male archetype (violent and sexually aggressive towards the white woman), which glorifies the KKK and which unfortunately had an immense impact on the popular culture of the United States.
“Gone with the Wind” speaks only of nostalgia for the Old South, and that is really what is extremely disturbing. The title of the film announces itself: the main theme is the nostalgia for a lost civilization, blown away by the winds of history.
All the protagonists (except Rhett Butler) live in this nostalgia for a better world, lost forever. Starting with Ashley who, when his wife dies, mourns the death of his old world as much as the death of Melanie.
Scarlett always comes back to Tara, as the ultimate anchor, as the ultimate point of rebirth when she is in trouble, even though this land is frightfully red, as if it were drenched in blood.
But she is certainly not the champion of questioning, right? she is only motivated by money, which has taken a devouring place in her survival process.
Nobody – no.bo.dy – seems to question slavery or evolve with the times. Be it Scarlett’s mother, presented as a charitable lady or Melanie, presented as the ultimate incarnation of goodness and kindness, no one seems to question slavery, even though this abolition already took place in 1777 in Vermont, in 1780 in Pennsylvania, in 1783 in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, even though abolition has therefore been in the public debate for a long time and even triggered the Civil War (in 1861, therefore, 84 years after the first abolition in Vermont).
I’ll be honest: I watched this 4 hour movie again, to write this article. The only conclusion I come up with is that “Gone with the Wind” should continue to air, albeit with some preliminary explanations. Margaret Mitchell’s book – even more racist and revisionist – must meet the same fate.
Banning the broadcast of “Gone with the Wind” would do no good, because it is an artistic work of its time – 1939, (
in full segregation – Hattie McDaniel knows something about it), and to apply contemporary socio-cultural standards to this movie would not make sense.
I hear the arguments that we’re all smart enough to know, understand, and sort things out when we watch this movie and that the explanatory introduction from HBO (which has the movie in its catalog, temporarily took it down to put it back, accompanied by an explanatory introduction) is not necessary.
Unfortunately, I do not agree: I come back to the perception of a child who has no context and who will see Mammy as the dedicated nanny presented as an almost-member of the family.
Also, clearly not everyone is that smart and grown-up, since black people are still being shot in the back and experiencing systemic racism that no one can ignore anymore. Explaining “Gone with the Wind” is necessary. Whether the explanation comes from parents who have made the effort to educate themselves on the subject, or from a historical explanation introducing the film.
Because not looking our past in the eye condemns us to repeat it.
July 29, 2020
Erdem x H&M dress – YSL vintage cuff – Repetto flat shoes – Vintage hat