“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called Old South. Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave . . . Look for it only in books for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind . . .”
So begins the movie “Gone with the Wind,” one of the most celebrated and controversial films in the history of Hollywood. For me, it speaks to the mindset of Hollywood in 1939, the year this film was released. The story tries to make us believe that the South was better when slavery was enforced, that President Lincoln was practically a traitor for signing the Emancipation Proclamation and that blacks were, and would always be, inferior to whites, something “Yankees” could never understand. Though the film has a recurring theme of this way of life being honorable and right because it was rooted in the love of the land, “Gone With The Wind” is simply a romanticism of crimes against humanity.
Unlike many Hollywood productions, the issues surrounding this film extended beyond the studio and the big screen. Born on June 10, 1895 to former slaves, Hattie McDaniel’s memorable role of Mammy became the subject of much controversy. Starting out as a blues singer, she is one of the first black women to perform on American radio, had about 40 performances in the 1930s, performing in 12 films during the year 1936 alone, most of these as the maid or cook for white families. McDaniel was cast in “Beulah” where she was the first black person to star in a radio program geared toward the general audience. During her career, McDaniel worked with Marlene Dietrich in “Blonde Venus” in 1932 and with Katherine Hepburn in “Alice Adams” in 1935. But by the time she died of breast cancer on October 26, 1952 at the age of 57, she would be most infamously remembered for her on screen performance in “Gone With The Wind,” and for her off screen defense of this performance.
The racial climate of the studio was discriminatory, at best, during the project’s production. MGM had ‘whites only’ and ‘blacks only’ signs on the bathrooms during the shooting, until a group of black performers threatened a work slowdown. Individual cars were sent for the white performers while the black actors, including McDaniel, had to carpool to the studio in one limo. It is said that that the studio heads viewed the higher salaries of some of the black performers as justifiable because “they were playing slaves” which “kept them in their place.”
Initially, Susan Myrick, the film’s consultant on Southern culture and practices, didn’t want to hire McDaniel as Mammy. In the biography “Black Ambition, White Hollywood,” Myrick is said to have felt that McDaniel was “lack[ing] in dignity, age, nobility and so on. She just hasn’t the right face for it.” Eventually, Myrick tried to convince the public that McDaniel and her character Mammy were one in the same, particularly after McDaniel made a cold remedy for someone on the set. This was among many reports that would come from Myrick as the film’s producers tried to justify their actions.
Fear of bad press, even if this press came from black news journals, prompted the studio to implement a fake PR campaign that heavily focused on the times when McDaniel did domestic work, omitted her father’s rebellion against slavery, created a fictitious grandmother, and made no mention of her entertainment success prior to being cast in this movie. McDaniel appeared to cooperate with the studio’s efforts, which caused Butterfly McQueen, who played Prissy, to label her a sell out. The rewriting of a celebrity’s life story still happens today, but, in McDaniel’s case, it was detrimental because she was truly representing an entire race of people at that time.
The storm surrounding this film began long before its completion and release. Walter White, who at the time was the executive secretary of the NAACP, wrote a letter of protest to the film’s producer, David O. Selznick, letting him know that the film would adversely affect American society. He did not want production on the project to stop. Instead, White requested that the studio hire a black person to supervise and remove the racist connotations found within the story. He also suggested that the writer, Sidney Howard, refer to W.E.B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in an effort to maintain authenticity in telling the whole story about the South during and after the Civil War. Mr. Howard’s response to this suggestion was simply that he’d already read Black Reconstruction. Unfortunately, Hollywood has still not completely learned the value of having black people telling and overseeing black stories, which may account for the lack of diversity on the big screen even today. It certainly resulted in clownish images of blacks in “Gone With the Wind.”
Selznick believed himself to be sympathetic to the need to ensure that the film did not foster stereotypical ideas about black people but his mindset was tied to the racist notions of the time. He fought to keep the “N” word in the script by arguing that it made for historically authentic dialogue. The word was not stricken from the script until June of 1939 but was replaced with an equally derogatory word —”darkie.” He considered hiring D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) to assist with the film. In the end, Selnick did not honor his promise to Walter White to hire a black consultant for the film, as he felt that person might want to make changes to the content of the film. In addition to resistance from the NAACP, Selznick faced the criticisms and protests from Lester Granger of the Urban League, who insisted that Hollywood produce films in which blacks were portrayed with dignity. Granger made it clear that he felt that Hollywood threatened American democracy by refusing to recognize the equality and humanity of all of its citizens. Somehow, these same battles are being fought today.
The three principal black characters, Mammy, Prissy and Pork, don’t even have real names and were portrayed as simple-minded, complacent, even happy in their enslaved existence, and filled with love for their oppressor. That the film’s producers may have really felt this was true is evident in their commitment to this portrayal even in the face of all the arguments brought by the NAACP, Urban League, the black press and letter writing protestors. It was further evidenced at the film’s opening in Atlanta, where McDaniel was not allowed to attend and at the Academy Awards where McDaniel was not allowed to accept her Oscar on stage. These were living examples of how the ideals of the old South continued to be romanticized by Hollywood.
This film that is so highly revered in Hollywood as one of the best American films ever made. With all of its racism, stereotypes, and bigoted images, it is still being celebrated 70 years later. And it is still a disgraceful depiction of American history as it relates to black people. While there have been some changes in the types of stories Hollywood tells about African-American life, we have a long way to go before we see true equality on the big screen and behind the scenes. It seems that Hollywood still feels that America’s best days are indeed gone with the wind.