When you ask people to name classic films, Gone With the Wind often comes to mind. Before it was a movie, it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel written by Margaret Mitchell back in 1936.
The film hit theaters in 1939.
The movie takes place during the Civil War and focuses on the character Scarlett O’Hara, who is played by Vivien Leigh. The film traces her past living in the South during such a different time. As you may imagine, many of the scenes and images just don’t fly today, making it more of an uncomfortable watch.
Due to the Black Lives Matter movement, people are finally starting to realize that certain images are offensive, or are deeply rooted in racism.
But we’ve been overlooking them.
Just in the past few days, brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben announced they’d be going through a complete brand makeover. Even Disney’s Splash Mountain is going to get rebranded due to elements of the ride that could insult visitors. For many people, it’s a hard look at how much of our country has accepted these images for such a long time.
It is impossible to erase history, but it’s important to learn from it, so that we don’t make the same mistakes.
For a movie like Gone With the Wind, it’s important for viewers old and new to realize that back in the ’40s, people treated each other differently. And that’s why HBO has decided to put a very helpful disclaimer before the movie. It admits that some of the portrayals are hard to watch, or may offend, making it clear that it’s not OK.
According to People magazine, Jacqueline Stewart, a film professor and cohost of Turner Classic Movies, will be the one to give the new introduction. “You are about to see one of the most enduringly popular films of all time,” she starts. She says that while the movie is famous, it wasn’t necessarily a hit with everyone.
“The film has been repeatedly protested, dating back to the announcement of its production,” she notes. “From its prologue, the film paints the picture of the Antebellum South as a romantic, idyllic setting that’s tragically been lost to the past.” But other people have viewed it differently.
“The film follows the lead of Mitchell’s novel, presenting the Antebellum South as a world of grace and beauty without acknowledging the brutalities of the system of chattel slavery upon which this world is based,” she exclaims.
Jacqueline doesn’t sugarcoat why the movie is seen as being offensive. “The film represents enslaved Black people in accordance with longstanding stereotypes as servants notable for their devotion to their white masters, or for their ineptitude,” she said. “And the film’s treatment of this world through a lens of nostalgia denies the horrors of slavery as well as its legacies of racial inequality.”
She also explained a few disturbing truths that happened back when the film was popular. For one, Black actress Hattie McDaniel won an Academy Award for her role in the film. And she was the first Black woman to do so, which is monumental. But the academy refused to have her sit with her white costars at the event.
It’s unsettling to think about how she must have felt. She and her other Black costars weren’t even invited to the premiere of the movie. And nobody was called out for making terrible rules like this. It’s hard to think that that this act of racism didn’t even happen that long ago.
It makes sense why the film leaves many viewers bitter. “Watching Gone with the Wind can be uncomfortable, even painful,” Jacqueline admits. “Still, it is important that classic Hollywood films are available to us in their original form for viewing and discussion.” And that’s true — oftentimes, films bring us a sense of history.
It’s necessary to sit back and think about the hardships that the Black actors had to deal with while making such a classic movie. To them, the experience was different than it was for Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable. Sadly, we can’t go back in history and make things right.
Instead, we can create change for the future to make sure that our country stops treating Black people as if they aren’t equal. “Classic films have been and continue to be a major influence on popular views of history” Jacqueline states. “Gone with the Wind in particular — with its landmark production values, signature scenes, and iconic characters — has shaped the way generations of viewers worldwide have pictured slavery and the reconstruction period that followed.”
Gone With the Wind is still important. But it’s important for people to know that the representation at the time was harmful. Even Jacqueline agrees that while it has its place in cinema, it’s important to talk about the characters’ depictions, especially for new viewers. “Gone with the Wind is a film of undeniable cultural significance,” she says.
“It is not only a major document of Hollywood’s racist practices of the past, but also an enduring work of popular culture that speaks directly to the racial inequalities that persist in media and society today,” she continues. For her, it’s important that the film be acknowledged as many people are turning toward the media to learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement.
In fact, many streaming services have provided some educational titles for free. Netflix even has a category for movies that complement the movement and further explain why it’s so important. If you’re uncomfortable while watching, it’s probably for a good reason. It’s hard for some people to realize that in seeing this film, we categorized these depictions as “normal.”
Jacqueline believes that people can still learn from the film. And that by editing the scenes out of the film, it’s denying that they ever existed. So this disclaimer is a good solution for now. “Some complained that taking the film down was a form of censorship. For others, seeing Gone with the Wind featured so prominently in HBO Max’s launch felt like salt rubbed into wounds that have never been permitted to heal,” she said. “These wounds are reopened with every act of anti-Black violence, every delay in justice and every failure to acknowledge the extent of Black suffering.”