The famous four-hour long epic saga “Gone With the Wind” celebrates its 70th birthday today. The 1939 film is a telling indicator of the romanticism and racial conventions of its day, where Jim Crow reigned and the official Civil Rights Movement was years away.
In the movie, Scarlett O’Hara, an extremely self-centered Southern belle who survives the horrors of the Civil War, is tortured by her affections for both Ashley Wilkes, a married man, and the rich and robust Rhett Butler. Along the way, our heroine is looked over and guided by her cherished Mammy, the most prominent black character played by singer and actress Hattie McDaniel.
The depictions of African-Americans presented here are ludicrously narrow, though to be fair, many of the characters are serving certain popular ideas, with the black roles far more demeaning. White southerners are of the kinder, gentler sort who—except for brat of a belle Scarlett—treat their slaves with care and gentility. Referred to as “darkies,” black women and men in the film are loyal, simple folk who wish little more from life than to take care of nuanced, needy white people.
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Mammy epitomized this notion, as she chooses to stay on with her “family” even after the Civil War. Audience members are given almost no information as to who this woman is outside of her relationship to the O’Hara clan. Nonetheless, McDaniel does a commendable job given the circumstances, imbuing a role based on narrowness with elements of humanity and depth. During one scene, after Scarlett and Rhett’s daughter Bonnie dies in a horse-riding accident, the house descends into madness and hate, a matter that the audience learns of through Mammy’s tear-filled monologue to a family friend. The emotional weight of the scene is visceral, and one is pressed to not feel consumed, at least momentarily, by the swirling despair conjured up by McDaniel’s performance, particularly when one remembers that it was Mammy who felt a profound unease about Bonnie riding horses.
McDaniel took home a Supporting Actress Oscar for her role, becoming the first black performer to win an Academy Award. Time moves on. Decades offer (some) changes in opportunities and sensibilities. The first black woman to take home the golden statue played a loud, commanding, voluptuous figure who sings off-camera, whose motivations are rendered invisible amongst an almost all Caucasian cast; the most recent black woman to win an Oscar plays a loud, commanding, voluptuous figure who sings on-camera, whose quest for actualization was realized amongst an almost all African-American cast.
Jennifer Hudson as “Dream Girl’s” Effie, signifies Hollywood’s progress, but the same decades-long conversations still exist around racial depictions on screen. Though we’re no longer celluloid slaves or servants, black performers are still routinely seen as magical side players in white lives, and there’s still the constant call for more expansive portrayals of the lives of people of color.
As someone who was featured in many classic Hollywood films, McDaniel helped create a path for future brown performers, and that should be honored and cherished, particularly for those of us who are choosing to form alliances with the machine. But McDaniel’s legacy, and the unspoken assumptions about race made by “Gone With the Wind” and other films of its era, also highlights what we can do now with impunity and freedom. Outside-the-box mavericks, some of who are performers as well but are first and foremost creators, the Spike Lees, Lee Daniels and Oprah Winfreys of the world, have taken brown film legacies and used them to create their own universes.
We do need people to continue to knock on Hollywood’s door and hence be a part of cinematic evolutions, yet it would be a disservice to McDaniel and other thespians who have come before and after her to not also explore what lies beyond what’s offered. And then allow Hollywood to come to us.