On Tuesday, comments circulated when HBO Max announced that it was temporarily cancelling “Gone With the Wind” to run and meanwhile viewers raised their eyebrows this time.
The 1939 classic — still the highest-grossing film of all time “Gone With the Wind,” starring Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara, left, and Hattie McDaniel as Mammy, has enduringly shaped popular understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction perhaps more than any other cultural artifact.
“You want to have a Southern antebellum wedding — where does that come from?” said Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian at Wellesley College who teaches a course on slavery and film. “People will say they haven’t seen the movie. But they have seen it — just not in its original form.”
Due to its racist stereotypes and whitewashing of the horrors of slavery, and calling for it to be presented only with added historical context. The Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by John Ridley, the screenwriter of “Twelve Years a Slave,” criticizing “Gone With the Wind”
The author of this controversial masterpiece, Mitchell, a former journalist who wrote the novel (her first and only) while recovering from an injury, expected it to sell 5,000 copies. Instead, it became a sensation, selling nearly a million copies within six months, and earning her the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
The production of the movie version, including the casting of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler, was covered breathlessly in the press. And by opening night, in 1939, seven million copies of the book had been sold.
Way back 1940; the historical inaccuracies have led African-Americans to protest outside a theater.
“There was nascent civil rights activity in the 1930s, but if everyone is watching this movie or reading this book, they get the idea that that’s how things were,” Cox said. “It made it easier for white Northerners to look at African-American migrants arriving in places like Chicago and say, ‘Why can’t you act like these Negroes?’”
Margaret Mitchell have responded “I do not intend to let any troublemaking Professional Negros change my feelings towards the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and mutual respect,” she wrote to a friend.
Selznick said “I for one have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film,” he wrote in a memo to the screenwriter Sidney Howard. “In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger.”
Walter White wrote to him expressing concern, and suggesting he hire someone, preferably an African-American, to check “possible errors” of fact and interpretation. “The writing of history of the Reconstruction period has been so completely confederatized during the last two or three generations that we naturally are somewhat anxious,” he wrote.
The movie used references to the Ku Klux Klan, which the novel calls “a tragic necessity,” were omitted. Reluctantly, Selznick also cut from the script a common but notorious racial terms.
There was a scene where Scarlett was riding alone through a shantytown, is nearly raped by a black man, which prompts a retaliatory raid by the Klan. Instead, the attacker is a poor white man, and the nature of the posse that rides out to avenge her honor is not specified.
“A group of men can go out and ‘get’ the perpetrators of an attempted rape without having long white sheets over them,” Selznick wrote in a memo.
But the film put the nostalgic Lost Cause mythology — by that point, the dominant national view of the Civil War — front and center, starting with the opening title cards paying tribute to “a land of Cavaliers and Cotton fields,” a “pretty world where Gallantry took its last bow.”
Among those who saw it around this time was a teenage Malcolm X. “I was the only Negro in the theater, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The New York Times took big coverage of the movie’s premieres in New York and Atlanta, where the four days of festivities included the Ebenezer Baptist Church and wherein few noted the African-American protests, or any black criticism at all.
In 1974, NBC paid a record-smashing $5 million dollars (more than $26 million today) for the right to show the film once, as part of its Bicentennial programming. Broadcast over two nights, it was watched by 47 percent of all American households.
Some African-American artists have made direct challenges to its whitewashed nostalgia. In 2001, the Mitchell estate fought a losing copyright battle against “The Wind Done Gone,” the novelist Alice Randall’s parody from the point of view of the enslaved. The authorized sequels, meanwhile, have tried, sometimes awkwardly, to update the book’s racial politics, while keeping the white-centered romance intact.
Other institutions have changed their approaches. Since the Atlanta History Center took over the Margaret Mitchell House from a private group in 2006, the focus has shifted from a literary view that downplayed racial controversy to an emphasis on the story’s racist tropes and distorted history — and the fact that African-Americans objected from the beginning.
Jessica VanLanDuyt, the center’s vice president for guest experience, said the house has seen declining visitor numbers in recent years, though there remains a strong contingent from other countries where “Gone With the Wind” is popular.
Jackson, the Wellesley historian stated that “Students will say, ‘I love ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘I hate ‘Gone With the Wind,’” she said. “They love the aesthetics, which are so over the top, it’s like candy. But they know I’m going to make them dig deeper. And when they do, they say, ‘This is awful.’”