This classic movie has sparked love and hate over the years. What is it about and why is it so controversial?
It’s the top-grossing film of all time when adjusted for ticket price inflation. It received 10 Oscars when it was released in 1939. In 2020, it was temporarily pulled out of HBO Max because of its depiction of racist stereotypes.
Scarlett O’Hara is a beautiful and spoiled southern belle who lives on her family’s cotton plantation, surrounded by many black slaves. Scarlett fancies Ashley Wilkes, despite him being betrothed to his cousin, Melanie Hamilton. At the reception at Twelve Oaks, Ashley’s plantation, he rejects her. But it’s another man who is captivated by her: Rhett Butler, a cynical profiteer. The 4-hour film mixes Scarlett’s love intrigues with life on the plantation she’s trying to keep afloat, and her relationships with her slaves, Mammy and Prissy. The backdrop: the Civil War and Reconstruction in the Old South.
Critics tend to praise the film’s technicality. Capturing such images in Technicolor, a very young technology at the time, was a feat. The performances of the actors, especially Vivian Leigh as Scarlet, also stand out as positive to contemporary audiences.
However, for many, the film is an example of racism. Some even go so far as to accuse it of “Confederate propaganda” because it glorifies the Old South and erases the horrors of slavery.
Hattie McDaniel’s character, Mammy, who won an Oscar for this role, becoming the first black person to get a statue, fits the stereotype of a good slave who submits to her master. An image that people of color, including McDaniel herself, have always fought against.
Hattie McDaniel was against the use of racial slurs, but she knew full well, as she advised one of her co-stars, that opposing producer David Selznick meant never working with him again. Moreover, even though her acting talent was recognized by the Academy, she was segregated during the ceremony and had to sit outside the room which was reserved for white people. When she died, her last wish to be buried in the Hollywood cemetery was not even respected. It, too, was for whites only.
Despite its qualities, Gone With the Wind is hard to watch without thinking of all this. Controversy has been around for a long time: back in ’39, there were already calls for boycotts and letters of complaint to producers. Today, these calls are being heard. The film is being viewed more critically, and in many cases, not at all. It is and will remain, for the better and mostly for the worst, part of our cinematic history.
CREDITS: Text by Malena Cortizo A.