It only took 84 years but someone involved with distributing Gone With the Wind has finally acknowledged that its glorification of the antebellum south is racist and that it perhaps should not be disseminated to audiences without some kind of warning.
While Disney was quick to put disclaimers on some of its more offensive content when it launched Disney+ last year, Warner Media set up Gone With the Wind as a jewel in its news HBO Max streaming service. The film was highlighted on the front page and given pride of place when you navigated to the section containing “classic films.” As with the versions of the film sold digitally by Apple, Amazon, and other retailers, there was no disclaimer calling out the film’s virulent racism.
And make no mistake, the film is steeped in a deep nostalgia for the pre-Civil War south with an opening crawl, pulled straight from Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel, that fondly recalls: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South... Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Masters and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered.”
Folks like to say Gone With the Wind was, too, made in a bygone era, and that the racism found in its glorification of slavery and the antebellum south, and its reliance on deeply damaging racist stock characters like Mammy, Prissy, Big Sam, and the guy astounded by the brief post-Civil War promise of “40 acres and a mule” for former slaves, are simply products of the time. Folks like to suggest that the discussions around the racism in the film (and the book) are new things.
But Gone With the Wind, which was originally screened for all-white audiences in 1939, has faced its fair share of criticism that predates its arrival on HBO Max in May 2020. In 1936, Walter White, then secretary of the NAACP, wrote to the producer of the film, David O. Selznick, imploring him to hire Black sensitivity readers to avoid glorification of slavery.
Selznick declined, and instead, according to Karina Longworth in the podcast, You Must Remember This, hired a white woman who was charged with teaching the Black actors “historically and geographically specific dialect”.
He was also very clearly aware of the original novel’s racism and incendiary subject matter. As historian Longworth notes, Selznick actually thought he was making a progressive film because he excised scenes from the book that featured a heroic Klu Klux Klan and changed Black villains from the novel into white villains in the film.
The film faced protests and criticism for its implicit racism while being made, with actress Hattie McDaniel receiving the brunt of the vitriol. Earl Morris, of the Pittsburgh Courier, wrote at the time “We feel proud over the fact that Hattie McDaniel won the coveted role of Mammy...It means about $2,000 for Miss McDaniel in individual achievement...[and] nothing in racial advancement.”
In 1939, McDaniel would famously not be permitted into the premiere of the film because the theater elected to premiere one of the largest and most expensive films ever made forbid Black people. She’d win an Oscar for the role.
None of this was new information back in May when HBO Max launched. Audiences have wrestled with the film’s bigotry since before it was even cast. But in May, the conversation about racism in this country, and our hundred and fifty year-plus refusal to address the stain of slavery, finally took a turning point. George Floyd was murdered on camera and many of those who had ignored or somehow been ignorant of the systemic racism and brutality Black people face began to acknowledge their own complicity and reckon with our nation’s past.
And with that acknowledgment came a demand for corporations to pay lip service. Because that’s exactly what WarnerMedia did. After realizing it needed a splashy way of showing “it cares” it pulled Gone With the Wind from its service with a promise to return it with a disclaimer.
But abruptly pulling content from a service in an effort to censor it rarely has the intended effect. Downloads and sales of Gone With the Wind went up on the myriad of services that still offered it. As Longworth noted on Twitter at the time, “when the industry tries to hide that history by de-circulating the products, they become fetish objects.”
Longworth specifically referred to Song of the South, a 1946 live-action and animated film based on the Briar Rabbit folktales, which were themselves cobbled together out of racist caricatures. Walt Disney knew that Song of the South, which features a kind former Black slave happily telling stories to a wealthy white boy, was racist when he made it. He hired Black performer Clarence Muse to consult on the film, and Muse then quit when Disney and co. ignored his suggestions to make the Black characters more “dignified.” Walter White of the NAACP requested to see treatments of the film, which Disney denied.
The film didn’t even do well on release, and only grew popular after repeat re-releases and the development of the Splash Mountain ride for Disney Land and Disney World. Song of the South then only really entered its current cult status after Disney yanked it back into the vault. It left up Splash Mountain, and I guarantee most of you can hum a few bars of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”. So Song of the South remains a part of the cultural landscape. (Though Disney did announce today that the Splash Mountain rides would both be dropping the Song of the South theme and become Princess Tiana rides instead. Tiana is notably the first Black Disney princess and appeared in the 2009 film, The Princess and the Frog. She spent most of the running time as a frog.)
Gone With the Wind was a monstrously huge book, and the film continues to be one of the most successful of all time. Its impact on American culture is pervasive, and yanking it for a few days only made it more enticing. While Warner Media may have intended to reduce the film’s impact on our collective consciousness it instead went full Streisand effect and just drummed up publicity for its second release while turning the film into a cause célèbre for conservative pundits.
The bright side of this massive cock-up is that the new disclaimer is excellent and should be a model for every studio (including Disney) going forward. In the 4-minute and 26-second video, Turner Classic Movies host Jacqueline Stewart (who was TCM’s first African American host when she was hired in 2019) outlines both the cultural importance of the film and its long and well known racist history. You can’t skip the video if you want to watch the movie. It’s required, but Warner told Gizmodo it was created exclusively for HBO Max. This means that the helpful context won’t be found on digital copies purchased elsewhere. But it should be required going forward, not just for Gone With the Wind, but for thousands of other older films making their way to streaming services (though Warner says it has still yet to determine what, if any other films, will get a similar disclaimer.)
As the streaming services become studio fiefdoms and begin rolling out more and more classic films to bulk up their catalogs, we’re destined to find ourselves in a repeat of this situation. Here’s hoping other streaming services take note, and instead of hiding their uncomfortable history in the hopes we all forget about it, take time to educate and illuminate that history instead.