When HBO Max announced Tuesday that it was temporarily removing “Gone With the Wind” from its streaming service, it seemed as if another Confederate monument was coming down.
“Gone With the Wind” may register with younger people today only as their grandmother’s favorite movie (or maybe, the source of a lacerating joke that opens Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”). And for every prominent conservative accusing HBO Max of censorship, there were plenty on social media calling the movie, well, boring.
But the 1939 classic — still the highest-grossing film of all time, adjusted for inflation — 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.”
HBO Max’s move came a day after The Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece by John Ridley, the screenwriter of “Twelve Years a Slave,” criticizing “Gone With the Wind” for its racist stereotypes and whitewashing of the horrors of slavery, and calling for it to be presented only with added historical context.
But it also represents a belated reckoning with African-American criticism that started immediately after the 1936 publication of Margaret Mitchell’s novel — even if it was barely noted in the mainstream white press.
“Gone With the Wind” is one of the mythic lightning strikes of American cultural history. 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.
The frenzy around the novel and the movie also touched off a national craze for all things Dixie. Mitchell was inundated with requests to authorize “Gone With the Wind”-themed pens, hats, dolls, even chintz fabric. In 1939, Macy’s devoted several floors of its flagship store to products associated with the film, under the theme “The Old South Comes North.”
“People just ate it up,” said Karen L. Cox, a historian at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and the author of “Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.” And the Northern embrace of Mitchell’s plantation nostalgia, with its depiction of happy, obedient slaves, wasn’t just harmless fun.
“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?’”
But even as white Americans embraced the moonlight and magnolias, African-Americans were registering objections. Soon after the producer David O. Selznick bought the rights, there were complaints that a movie version would incite violence, spread bigotry and even derail a proposed federal anti-lynching bill.
Margaret Mitchell reacted dismissively to the criticism. “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 did a more complicated dance. “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.”
In 1936, Walter White, the secretary of the NAACP, 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.
Selznick initially floated the name of one potential African-American adviser, but ultimately hired two whites, including a journalist friend of Mitchell’s, tasked with keeping the Southern speech authentic (a matter of great concern to some white fans of the novel who wrote to Selznick) and avoiding missteps on details like the appropriateness of Scarlett’s headgear at an evening party.
The film tried to sanitize some of the novel’s racist elements. 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 slur (“the hate word,” as one African-American journalist who weighed in put it).
The film also finessed a scene from the book where Scarlett, while 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.”
Even during production, there were calls for an African-American boycott. Afterward, there were protests outside theaters in Chicago, Washington and other cities.
While responses to the finished film in the black press were mixed, the criticism was harsh. The Chicago Defender initially published a column calling it inoffensive and the performances of Hattie McDaniel (Mammy) and Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) examples of “Negro artistry.” But a week later, it ran a scathing review calling it “a weapon of terror against black America.” a sentiment echoed in other black papers like the Pittsburgh Courier, which denounced the depiction of all blacks as “happy house servants and unthinking, helpless clods.”
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.
White audiences, meanwhile, were largely swept up in celebration of the nearly four-hour Technicolor epic, with its hundreds of extras, lavish costumes and themes of grit and survival that resonated with a country emerging from the Depression.
White newspapers, including The New York Times, carried rapturous coverage of the movie’s premieres in New York and Atlanta, where the four days of festivities included the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir (including, one film scholar has noted, a 10-year-old Martin Luther King Jr.) singing in front of a mock-up of Tara, the film’s plantation. But few noted the African-American protests, or any black criticism at all.
Even past the 1960s, the film endured for many white Americans as a beloved cultural touchstone, a symbol of golden age Hollywood — and even American identity itself.
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.
In Alexandra Ripley’s “Scarlett,” from 1991, Scarlett lovingly tends to the dying Mammy, who is ushered offstage (along with most of the black characters) early on. “Rhett Butler’s People,” by Donald McCaig, from 2007, focused on the post-Civil War struggle over the re-establishment of white supremacy, but glossed over the issue of the Klan (and Rhett’s possible membership).
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.
But even in America, it retains its allure, including among audiences “who know better,” as the New York Times critic Vincent Canby put it in a mostly rapturous 1998 reassessment of the movie.
Jackson, the Wellesley historian, said students usually come to her class having never seen the film. But it ends up being one of the offerings they respond to the most.
“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.’”