• Entertainment
  • movies

Gone With the Wind Should Not Be Erased, Argue Film Historians. But It Should Not Be Watched in a Vacuum

8 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Nationwide protests following the police killing of George Floyd have prompted a reckoning in media over the ways race and policing are depicted in popular culture. As a result, some films and TV shows that have controversially glorified police, like Cops and Live PD, or perpetuated racist stereotypes, like the British sketch show Little Britain, have been canceled or removed from their platforms.

In June, HBO Max removed the 1939 hit film Gone With the Wind—which has long been criticized for glorifying slavery in the American South—from its catalog, promising to return it to the service in along with “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of” its racist depictions. The decision followed the publication of a Los Angeles Times op-ed by John Ridley, the screenwriter of 12 Years A Slave, that called for the film to be taken down from the service or reintroduced later alongside more realistic cinematic depictions or paired with conversations that put it into context.

“[Gone With the Wind] is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color,” Ridley wrote. “It is a film that, as part of the narrative of the Lost Cause, romanticizes the Confederacy in a way that continues to give legitimacy to the notion that the secessionist movement was something more, or better, or more noble than what it was—a bloody insurrection to maintain the ‘right’ to own, sell and buy human beings.”

The film returned to HBO Max on June 24 with extra videos added to explain Gone With the Wind‘s historical context. Jacqueline Stewart, a professor at the University Chicago’s cinema and media studies department and host of the “Silent Sunday Nights” on Turner Classic Movies, discusses in an introductory clip about how Gone With the Wind became “one of the most enduringly popular films of all time,” despite its controversial history.

Gone With the Wind was not universally praised,” she says in the introduction. “The film has been repeatedly protested, dating back to the announcement of its production. From its prologue, the film paints the picture of the Antebellum South as a romantic, idyllic setting that’s tragically been lost to the past.”

HBO Max has also added a video of panel discussion about the film’s complicated legacy from the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2019.

The film’s initial removal from the new streaming platform mirrors a decision by Disney+ not to make the 1946 film Song of the South available at all, and to put content warnings in front of movies like Dumbo. And it has reignited a broader debate over censorship. But film historians and critics who spoke to TIME say the issue is more complicated than simply censoring content. For one thing, Gone With the Wind is still available to rent and buy on other platforms, and has not disappeared or been taken down permanently. Nor should it be, scholars contend. “Do I think it should be gone forever? No. I teach Gone With the Wind,” says Kimberly Nichele Brown, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. “But I teach with a whole lesson plan about race and racism. I historicize these movies.” The question Brown and others pose is, how will viewers engage with a movie like Gone With the Wind going forward?

“You can’t ignore the historical context,” says the film critic and pop culture writer ReBecca Theodore-Vachon. “Gone With the Wind centered a rich, privileged white woman and used slavery as a backdrop. Let’s talk about real-life narratives of the survivors of slavery who talked about the abuses they had to endure under these rich white women.”

Theodore-Vachon says viewers should also consider how racist tropes seen in Gone With the Wind can still be found onscreen today. Hattie McDaniel’s Oscar-winning role as Mammy, for example, cemented the trope of a Black woman who exists only to further a white character’s story, which is hardly extinct now. In recent years, this trope has played out, to give just one example, in Black actresses playing therapists to white TV characters.

“That character has no life outside of her own,” Theodore-Vachon says. “You might not know her last name. Producers are checking off a diversity box in their heads—they use Black people as seasoning.”

These issues are perpetuated, in part, because of a lack of diversity and inclusion in all facets of filmmaking and television, Theodore-Vachon says. A 2017 study examining the staff makeup of 234 scripted television shows found that just 4.8% of all TV writers were Black. “When your writers room is really white and the production is really white, those Black characters are basically in peril,” she says. “They’re in danger of being marginalized or tokenized, because there’s no one in the room advocating for them.”

Ridley’s observations about Gone With the Wind in the Los Angeles Times are not new, says Anna Everett, a film and media studies professor at UC Santa Barbara, who notes that several people spoke out against the film when it premiered in 1939. Everett points to the poet Melvin B. Tolson, who was among the Black critics to call out the film’s racism at the time of its release. Tolson wrote in the Washington Tribune that it was “more dangerous than The Birth of a Nation” (the 1915 D.W. Griffith film that was so racist in its portrayal of Black people that the Ku Klux Klan saw a violent resurgence).

Birth of a Nation was such a barefaced lie that a moron could see through it,” Tolson wrote at the time. “Gone with the Wind is such a subtle lie that it will be swallowed as truth by millions of whites and blacks alike.” That effect is due, in part, to the way the film addresses the Civil War, Everett says.

“The Civil War comes on like a spontaneous combustion, with no discussion of the economic or social or political causes that led to the war,” she says. “How can a civilization be ‘gone with the wind’ unless there was something to make it go? The picture doesn’t show the reality and aims to create sympathy for the white South. This is the historical context that HBO needs.”

The move to pull Gone With the Wind comes amid a wider awakening to systemic racism, which has led many to revisit movies about racism—though many would argue not all of these are the right choices. Last week, the 2011 film The Help—which has been widely criticized for promoting a white savior narrative by centering on a white female character being served by Black domestic workers—became the most watched movie on Netflix. To Brown, this signals that intentionally or not, non-Black audiences are trying to learn about racism from movies that that offer entertainment and catharsis rather than education. And after Gone Wind the Wind disappeared from HBO Max, Variety reported that the film sailed to the number-one spot on its best-seller sales list for TV and movies, suggesting, on one hand, that the removal of the film prompted a newfound curiosity, and on another, that people might want to bypass watching the movie accompanied by commentary. But watching Gone With the Wind without a proper understanding of the context, says Brown, allows white audiences to assuage their own guilt.

“People who are having anxiety about the protests are looking for nostalgic reminders of a racial context that they understand,” she says. “Something that is nice and compact and ties up race relations between Black people and white people in this nice neat bow.”

Ideally, a restored version of Gone With the Wind will include a conversation that discusses why so many aspects of the movie are racist and historically inaccurate, from the depiction of enslaved people seeming happy about being forced into labor to the implication that white women living on plantations weren’t complicit in the practice of slavery, says Theodore-Vachon.

“Scarlett [O’Hara, Vivien Leigh’s character in the film] didn’t abuse her slaves, but she didn’t free them either,” she says. “She never looked at Mammy and thought, ‘you need your freedom.’ There’s a lot of psychological trauma, physical trauma, but Gone With the Wind didn’t address any of that.”

Furthermore, audiences should start thinking more about what kind of TV and film they choose to watch, Theodore-Vachon says. Simply reeducating yourself about the truth of slavery by watching and reading discussion materials about Gone With the Wind is not enough.

“If you genuinely want to engage with America’s past and our present, I’d really challenge people to seek out work actually coming from Black filmmakers,” she says. “It’s important to see Black people living their regular lives.” Her comments allude to a broader conversation about how, when it comes to Black narratives, Hollywood tends to put its money behind movies about suffering, from slavery to the Civil Rights movement, and audiences support these choices with their purchasing power. “It’s really about regaining autonomy and humanity, and Gone With the Wind does not give us that.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Mahita Gajanan at mahita.gajanan@time.com