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Gone with the Wind and the emergence of film context

Written by Film

Unless you’ve completely cut yourself off social media and any other source of news outlet, you’ll have seen not only the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police, but also the monumental wave of fallout and resurgence of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests around the world. Of course, there is no such thing as a non-political issue, so the discussion around the movement has naturally involved the world of film criticism.

While the erection of statues of famous historical figures with oppressive and racist backgrounds has become a hot topic conversation, so has the availability of vintage films that were made at a time when the oppression and/or slavery of Black people was considered more “socially acceptable” by the predominant white society. Despite many films being able to fit into this category quite comfortably, it was Gone with the Wind (1939) that stood at the centre after the new streaming service HBO Max removed it in their response to the protests.

The love plot immediately coats the setting of Black slavery with romance.

Gone with the Wind is set on a plantation in Georgia – the American South – against a backdrop of the American Civil War. The plot follows Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh), who is the daughter of plantation owner Gerald O’Hara (Thomas Mitchell), and her romance and flirtations with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). Unfortunately for Scarlett, Wilkes is married to his cousin Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), which leads to Ashley marrying Rhett Butler (Clark Gable).

Gone with the Wind (1939) poster
Image Credit: IMDB

The incestuous details aside – though I have to imagine this was deemed socially acceptable for its setting – the love plot immediately coats the setting of Black slavery with romance. Their possession is boasted as a sign of wealth and aristocracy, adding to the appeal of Scarlett as a Southern Belle and wealthy heiress. It would be hard to consider that this would go unscrutinised had it been made in the current era.

Although statues can be torn down or placed in a museum, it is much harder to censor media, especially in the world of online communications. But it’s not necessary to censor, it’s necessary to add context.

You can’t erase Gone with the Wind; its contemporary achievements in filmmaking and accolades will see to that alone. But it is important to frame the film in a lighting suitable for today’s climate. A film can still be thought of as influential, as well as being a source of scrutiny and understanding of the downfalls of earlier social thinking.

Gone with the Wind may have been the original blockbuster – in a financial success definition – and still retains that status when adjusted to inflation, but its current role as historical evidence is an equally important legacy to hold. Placing context in front of the film will help navigate the conversation and track the status of previous social reflections in artistic products.

You can’t afford to be complacent in opportunities to educate both the young and the more socially “unaware” in these matters.

While it may seem obvious to some that Gone with the Wind is more widely representative of a certain time, you can’t afford to be complacent in opportunities to educate both the young and the more socially “unaware” in these matters. The fact is systematic racism continues to pervade the lives of many Black citizens and has done for countless generations.

Though more beneficial and revealing to watch documentaries such as 13th (2016) by Ava DuVernay, which details the systematic racism and the oppressive privatised prison system in America, which for all intents and purposes uses “prison labour” as code for slavery, contextual information in front of these types of films will hopefully create a surge for further education, particularly among non-POCs.

Wishful thinking, I know.

Removing Gone with the Wind before a contextualised version was ready has almost definitely created more backlash than helped – there wasn’t really a movement calling for its removal so its hard to call this a response. Still, context should be extended beyond Gone with the Wind to not only other films, but also other social issues. Films such as A Taste of Honey (1961), despite having an overall positive depiction of a gay character, subjects said gay character to homophobic slurs and abuse throughout. Honey has a complex background in and of itself and creating an understanding of it could only create a deeper critical appreciation of the text.

Last modified: 21st June 2020

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