‘Gone with the Wind’: Media studies professor on decision to suspend movie classic
Many critics consider “Gone with the Wind”, released in December 1939, a masterpiece, one of the best films ever made. It won 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, and is still one of the highest-grossing films of the 20and century and on many top film lists in the country.
But the film — an epic romance set in the American South during Civil War and Reconstruction — also reinforced and romanticized historical caricatures of black men and black women enslaved to white people.
It’s because of this aspect of its legacy that streaming service HBO Max, when it launched on May 27, decided to make “Gone with the Wind” temporarily unavailable in its library.
A spokesperson for HBO Max told media that when the film returns, it will do so with a discussion of its historical context and a disclaimer of depictions, and will be presented “as it was originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same thing”. as pretending that these prejudices never existed.
“If we want to create a more just, equitable and inclusive future, we must first recognize and understand our history,” the spokesperson said.
To deepen the discussion, UVA Today caught up with University of Virginia Assistant Dean and Adjunct Professor of Media Studies Shilpa Davé, author of the book “Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film.”
Q. For those who may not be familiar with “Gone with the Wind”, what are its biggest problems?
A. One of the main controversies is that the film reinforced and romanticized historical caricatures of black men and black women enslaved to white people. The black characters were mothers, plantation workers, butlers, servants. The pre-Civil War era, with large plantations of enslaved workers, was fictionalized in the first part of the film, and the second part of the film chronicled the displacement of the plantation owners and their struggle to restore their position. .
The film is also notable because actress Hattie McDaniel won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the character Mammy. She was the first African American to win an Oscar, yet she and the other black actors in the film were not invited to the premiere, and at the 1940 awards ceremony the actress had to sit at a separate table.
The film and story impacted all aspects of American and popular culture through the 21st century, including depictions of slavery, race, gender, and class relations in the Civil War and Reconstruction South, to Hollywood production policies, parodies, and genres in books, comics , music, television and cinema. The names and characters have been entrenched in American popular culture for over 80 years.
There are very few visual representations in the 20and or 21st century that focus on or tell the stories of African Americans after the Civil War during Reconstruction (1865-1877) and chronicle black life where the federal government attempted to address the inequalities created by slavery on black people. African-American men were able to vote, hold political office, and both men and women were able to send their children to school and foster the development of an educated black middle class. Oscar Micheaux, a prominent African-American director and independent filmmaker, made several films with all-black actors that featured stories of African Americans after the Civil War in the 1940s, yet many of his films have been lost or were not kept.
Q. In your opinion, did HBO Max make the best decision? Do you think HBO Max would have made this decision had it not been for what is happening in our country right now?
A. Other companies, such as Disney Plus, already issued warnings about outdated historical depictions, so temporarily removing the film to include the historical context of the depictions was not a risky proposition. HBO Max was able to pull publicity from their move and show that they recognize the social and cultural conversations and events that are happening and that they wanted to take action. We’ll be able to see how they implement the changes, whether in the form of a documentary, a film intro, and/or increased funding for unrepresented voices in the future.
Additionally, we are seeing other companies respond by removing outdated or problematic visual racial representations – Quaker Oats is removing the Aunt Jemima brand from store shelves and Mars Inc. is changing the Uncle Ben’s Rice brand. There have been complaints about these images for years, but that hasn’t changed because they were profit driven and also considered a tradition. Sports team mascots bearing Indigenous and Aboriginal logos have been an issue for several years.
I think we need to think about how branding relates to the idea of tradition and the need for us to question the origins of our traditions. Where do they come from? Have certain practices survived their time and do we have the will to make changes even if it is a difficult transition with economic consequences?
The other question is what do they do next? Will companies fund projects to highlight Black experiences and voices not only in their own industry, but also to address systemic inequalities? Netflix donated significant funds ($120 million) to support historically black colleges such as Spelman and Morehouse, and the United Negro College Fund. It is an action that recognizes that these institutions have encouraged and can educate and support current and future leaders to address racial issues in the United States. How will we see these initiatives in other institutions such as the AVU or in companies?
Q. Just a few months ago when it launched, Disney Plus made the decision to put some of its content on hold due to racially insensitive content and outdated cultural portrayals and put disclaimers. -responsibility for some of its other content. Are we going to continue to have these same types of discussions every time a new streaming service or channel comes out? Do you think there should be some sort of governing body dictating what the standards should be – or would that be too much censorship?
A. Streaming services are profit-driven, but in general what this moment can do (and we saw it in the 1960s, 1970s and 1990s) is allow governing bodies and corporations to center voice of black and other underrepresented minorities (and more than one person) within the mission and policy-making institutions, and not only have a seat at the table, but drive the agenda . There are many minority media watchdog groups that Hollywood studios consult when developing projects.
There have been governing bodies in the past that have been detrimental. Hollywood developed the Hays Production Code from 1930 to 1968, and the Board of Censors enforced the code which contributed to racial stereotyping and reinforced segregation, xenophobia, norms of sexism and sexuality, and white supremacy in the Film Industry. If the film was not approved, it would not be allowed to be shown in theaters and in some regional theaters black actors and actresses were censored from the film.
After the elimination of the Hays code, another governing body, the Motion Picture Code Association, was created; he determined film ratings based on moral guidelines and often deliberately screened out the voices of blacks and other racial groups. The current rating body is the Classification and Ratings Administration, or CARA, which is an independent group of parents.
Q. In a recent appearance on Bloomberg, you said you asked students in your film classes to compare and contrast “Gone with the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation” with films contemporaries like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained”. .” Why do you think it’s good exercise, and what were some of the cool takeaways?
A. The mission gives all of us in the class a chance to reflect on the historical and cultural context from the perspective of the film industry, and also from the perspective that we all bring as moviegoers and scholars. The exercise helps us to reflect on our own expectations and biases when watching film, and also to see how storytelling and techniques have evolved.
One of the earliest films we watch is 1967’s ‘In the Heat of the Night’, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, as it examines then-contemporary race relations in 1967 and refers to plantation narratives as a story that affects everything the world in 1967. In order to better understand the problems of the 1967 film, you need to think about the contexts of plantation genre films and also ask, “Why don’t we see more films in other time periods that have these moments that allow us to reflect on the ramifications and constant repetition of older images that we carry in our heads? »
Q. Actress Whoopi Goldberg made the comment that if you start pulling all the insensitive movies, well, the list will get pretty long. Where and how to draw the line? Or do you just not draw a line and hope that the films, with the help of people like you, can be viewed in the right contexts?
A. I think people are always going to come up with “best” and “worst” lists, and it’s all driven by the people who apply the criteria. There are going to be individual opinions and there are going to be organized events. The Oscars have changed their voting structure to ensure that new and especially racially diverse voices can weigh in on the awards. Since 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite event, we’ve seen the number of racially diverse actors, actresses, writers, and directors being nominated for and winning Oscars.
Over the past five years, Spike Lee, Regina King, Mahershala Ali, Korean director Bong Joon-ho and Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón have joined Ang Lee, Guillermo del Toro, Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington as key voting members of the Academy, but there is still a long way to go. We need to be mindful and start with the questions: “From what perspective are we telling this story, and what might we be missing?”
We are a visual culture and we love stories. What I hope to do is highlight that we need more people of color to tell, write and make these stories because so many voices have been left out or ignored or deemed unprofitable. We need more industries, corporations, universities and federal offices to provide funding and opportunities to promote the arts and humanities by supporting libraries, film festivals and workshops, schools and communities to showcase, value and produce these stories.
Visual storytelling such as art, theater, TV shows, and movies tell all kinds of stories, and there will always be stories that spark conversation. And isn’t that what art and stories are supposed to do? It is a medium that can inspire us to see beyond our experience and change the world.