For the first image of his superb Oscar-winning film 'BlacKkKlansman' (2018), Spike Lee choose one of the most iconic sequences in film history - Scarlett O'Hara walking through the countless dead and injured Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War in the 1939 adaptation of 'Gone with the Wind'. The shot begins on Scarlett, then zooms out to a staggering master shot, where more and more bodies are revealed, a horrifying image of war and devastation. What is easy to forget, especially for a white audience, is where that shot ends: on a tattered but flying Confederate flag. In the film, this flag represents a fighting and failing South at the bloody height of the Civil War. For many though, especially African Americans - those the South fought passionately to oppress and control - the flag represents something quite different. That shot captures the great conundrum of how we deal with 'Gone with the Wind', a discussion Lee is very aware of in placing it within his film. It demonstrates the insane artistry and cinematic power of the 'Gone with the Wind', while at the same time, highlighting the historic crimes that it fails to represent.
In recent years, discussion has grown around how we deal with works and artists with troubling histories or outdated ideals. It's a question that doesn't seem to have a clear answer, certainly not one that covers every individual case. 'Gone with the Wind' is one of the more curious ones. Questions around the way the film deals with race, slavery and history have been around since before it was made. Before shooting, producer David O. Selznick made sure to water down many of the troubling racial stereotypes in Margaret Mitchell's original novel and remove references to the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn't enough though and didn't dissuade concerns over the idealistic portrait it painted of the war, the South and the experience of slavery. These concerns have continued over many decades, and in 2017, at the height of the Charlottesville white supremacist rallies, the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, cancelled screenings of the film due to play during their classics retrospective. "As an organisation whose stated mission is to 'entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,'" they wrote in a press release, "the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population." Thanks to a stronger discourse around cinema and popular culture in relation to history and representation, the question of what to do with the film became even more pressing.
There are arguments that 'Gone with the Wind' is as problematic as a Confederate monument, a dangerous piece of American myth-making that idealises the antebellum South and the slavery experience, perpetuating the stereotype of the ideal plantation, the ideal plantation owner and the kind, satisfied slave, something we know is as far from the truth as is possible. In most cases, such as with D.W. Griffiths' notorious 'The Birth of a Nation' (1915) or the bizarre Disney production 'Song of the South' (1946), such films can be relegated to academic oddities unsuitable as popular entertainment. However, there's one problem with applying this rule to 'Gone with the Wind' - it's one of the greatest and most beloved films in the history of the medium. In almost every way, it's a film that borders on perfection, one that continues to inspire and enthral audiences across successive generations and countless cultures. When a work of art is this good but also clearly problematic, how on earth do you reconcile with it?
When the opportunity came up to write about 'Gone with the Wind' for its 80th anniversary, I felt it as good a time as any to grapple with this complicated question of what can be done with it; the reason being that 'Gone with the Wind' is one of my favourite films. I've loved it since I first watched it on midday television as a kid, still revisit it often and marvel at its incredible craft, its remarkable performances, its thrilling narrative construction, its (mostly) progressive and challenging ideals. I could just shrug and refer to it as my "problematic fave", but that would be disrespectful towards both the film and the concerns around it.
And those concerns are clearly legitimate. Until the cancelled Orpheum screening in 2017, I'd never considered that the portrait of slavery and the whitewashing Civil War mythology it portrays would be problematic. It wasn't speaking to my history or my culture, and I didn't yet have an understanding of how problematic this could be. Revisiting it now for this article, it's impossible not to see it. The pre- and post-war slave experience in the film borders on a fairytale, with a contentment and optimism that doesn't capture any of the pain, suffering and confusion that really occurred in that period. What makes this stand out is how brutal and unsentimental the rest of the film is. It depicts war as waste, as a means for profiteering and dishonesty, displaying how to be a hero isn't as simple as putting on a uniform, how a new world cannot be built by moping about the loss of the old one. It has one of the most complex, arresting and iconic female characters in screen history with Scarlett O'Hara, mostly thanks to the powerhouse performance from Vivian Leigh, a woman who refuses to play by the rules of men, who is ambitious and driven and determined to survive by her own hand, any means necessary. That the film can be so immediate and affecting in every aspect other than how it deals with the very prevalent issue of slavery is startling, bizarre and deeply uncomfortable. So the question comes up yet again - how do you reconcile this within a work of art you love?
Back in 2017 - and for this article - I read a lot of commentary around this question. It ranged from a complete dismissal of the film to complete dismissal of the concerns around it, but mostly from white male critics. One that stood out from me was Angelica Jade Bastién's article for Vulture, 'What Are We to Do With Cinematic Monuments to the Confederacy?'. Bastién is in a similar position to myself, grappling with a problematic film that she also loves, but unlike me, she is an African American writer, and in a far more appropriate position to speak with authority about the film and its problems. She writes how it "reveals the cunning skill with which white supremacy creates its own myths," and how the danger of the film is that the idealised myth it perpetuates has seeped into American culture due to its massive cultural impact. "It would be simpler," she writes, "to brand 'Gone With the Wind' as a Confederate monument that, despite its gorgeous construction, is too saddled by racism to enjoy, and should be resigned to the past."
When a work of art is this good but also clearly problematic, how on earth do you reconcile with it?
She argues against this though, and it's an argument that speaks not just to a future relationship with this work, but all works where time and a greater understanding of history and human experience have unearthed their considerable flaws. "If 'Gone With the Wind' were consigned to the past, it would make it easier for many to forget how indicative it is of our present," she writes. "Where 'Birth of a Nation' inspires violence and the perpetuation of virulent racism, 'Gone With the Wind' inspires complacency - its mythology echoes today in a more casual form of bigotry that ignores the humanity of black people, while scrubbing white people clean of any wrongdoing."
I highly recommend reading her article, where she goes into much more detail about the film, her personal relationship with it and how we might deal with it in the future, but what Bastién articulates so beautifully is how much more dangerous it would be to simply put a film like 'Gone with the Wind' in a box and lock it away. For one thing, this is a foundational work of cinema with many virtues beyond its issues with history and race. More importantly though, by locking away the things we now find uncomfortable, it makes it more difficult to learn from their mistakes. A similar issue arose recently when rumours began to circulate that the Disney+ version of 'Dumbo' would remove the problematic crows sequence, a vital part of the narrative but one whose Jim Crow-style stereotypes get more unsettling with every passing year. They chose not to in the end, but prefaced the film by pointing out how these stereotypes represent outdated ideals and are not reflective of ours today. Isn't it better to talk to children about the problem with this portrait of people of colour rather than pretend it isn't there? Isn't that a step towards educating for a better world?
What works like 'Gone with the Wind' need for the future are context and discussion; an open and educational dialogue around them where audiences can be informed about their controversial issues. As Bastién points out, 'Gone with the Wind' can act as a conduit through which to talk about the whitewashing of American and African American history, how that has informed or hindered our discussions around race and reconciliation. The advantage with 'Gone with the Wind' is that it's such a damn great film that it becomes an accessible tool through which to have those discussions. No one wants to voluntarily watch 'The Birth of a Nation' - it's too long, too inaccessible, and too racist. It belongs to film academics now who can see it for what it is. By contrast, 'Gone with the Wind' has some of the greatest characters, the greatest sequences, the greatest filmmaking that cinema has ever seen. Maybe it's not an outdated relic to relinquish to the problematic past. Maybe it's a means through which we can begin a dialogue to understand that past better and shape a more hopeful and equal future.
This process of reckoning and understanding is still one I am very much in the middle of - not just with this film but with so many others. Works like 'Gone with the Wind' exist, and for better or worse, and they represent part of our cultural and artistic heritage. This makes them, I think, impossible to dismiss, but also makes their flaws impossible to ignore. We live in a time where those in power seem inclined to forget that history is a lesson from which we can learn, that understanding the mistakes of the past can inform the decisions of the future. As lovers of cinema, we have that same responsibility. The controversy around 'Gone with the Wind' reminds us that cinema is not a passive experience but an active and ever-evolving one, where it is vital we continue to engage in conversation with the works we see, interrogate how they make us feel, discuss where they fit within the world they were made and the world we are in now, and to encourage others to do the same. We can learn so much from the mistakes in 'Gone with the Wind', a masterpiece that has and will continue and should continue to endure, because those mistakes and problems will also endure with it. It's how we challenge and understand those mistakes that will determine the future for this important work of art, and all others like it.