What do critics object to?
As Ridley notes, the primary point of contention is the film’s romanticizing of the antebellum South, and its whitewashing of the horrors of slavery. The film presents the region’s pre-Civil War era as a utopia of tranquil living, and the Northern forces as interlopers, trying to disrupt that way of life. The servant characters are written and played as docile and content, more dedicated to their white masters than to the struggle of their fellow enslaved people (and uninterested in leaving the plantation after the war). And, much like D.W. Griffith’s horrifying hit “The Birth of a Nation,” the film casts the freed slaves of the Reconstruction era as morally dangerous and politically naïve.
How was it received when it was released?
Most critics joined in a chorus of praise, and moviegoers flocked to theaters. It remains the top-grossing film of all time, when adjusted for ticket price inflation. The academy was also impressed, giving it 10 Oscars, including best picture, best actress, best director (Victor Fleming) and, of course, McDaniel’s statuette.
So nobody objected in 1939?
Right-leaning pundits have already branded HBO Max’s removal as yet another example of contemporary “woke”-ism run amok, but “Gone With the Wind” has been the object of controversy since its inception. As detailed by Leonard J. Leff in The Atlantic, several groups sent letters to the producer, David O. Selznick, while the film was in preproduction, flagging their concerns with Mitchell’s novel, including its frequent use of racist slurs and characterization of the Ku Klux Klan as a “tragic necessity.” The Los Angeles Sentinel called for a boycott of “every other Selznick picture, present and future.”
Under that pressure, Selznick and his screenwriter, Sidney Howard, ultimately softened some of those elements, and agreed to the N.A.A.C.P.’s suggestion of hiring a technical adviser “to watch the entire treatment of the Negroes.” In fact, he hired two — both of them white.
When the film was released, the dramatist Carlton Moss wrote in The Daily Worker that the film “offered up a motley collection of flat black characters that insulted the black audience,” singling out McDaniel’s Mammy as “especially loathsome.” The Chicago Defender put an even finer point on it, calling the film “a weapon of terror against black America.”