HBO Max’s cancelling of Gone With the Wind in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is outrageous, Paul du Quenoy writes
It was inevitable. After the national race riots that followed the horrific death of George Floyd last month, hosts of wokevolk have emerged to exploit the racially charged atmosphere to resume purging American culture to their liking. Some of the remaining Confederate monuments have been toppled through means legal and illegal, while a fair number of statues of other white males on the nasty order of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are under threat. The United States Navy and Marine Corps, and even NASCAR, have all banned the Confederate battle flag. The airing of dissenting opinions about how to handle the recent unrest has led to the swift ouster of major media figures, whose broad-mindedness is thought to have posed “danger” to their staff. Everyone else has been put on notice that merely failing to voice support for woke directives is an act of aggression. “Silence,” one common slogan succinctly puts it, “is Violence.”
As companies big and small rush to be on the “right side of history,” something called “HBO Max” removed the classic 1939 film Gone With The Wind from its new streaming service for nearly a month. Simply by having been a “product of its time” the 81-year old film, set in and around Atlanta, which was again recently on fire, unpardonably sinned because it “depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society.” This censorious decision against a film that produced the first Academy Award bestowed on an African-American artist (Hattie McDaniel won for Best Supporting Actress) came down just three days after John Ridley, the screenwriter of the bludgeoning 12 Years A Slave, demanded Gone With The Wind’s removal in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Ridley declaimed that it “glorifies the antebellum south. It 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.” Made more than eight decades ago, Gone With The Wind appallingly fails to meet Ridley’s expectations today.
To add insult to injury, Ridley continued, it did not even have a warning or disclaimer to spare the delicate sensitivities of people who might unwittingly be exposed to the horror of Vivien Leigh but could blithely watch the looting of Lower Manhattan or violent seizure of downtown Seattle on every news channel. Ridley assured the reader that he does not “believe in censorship” – except when he does – and that he only wants to “make the world a better place” by using his celebrity to control what his fellow citizens may or may not view in their own homes via an optional media service for which they have paid. The CEO of HBO Max’s parent company described the decision to remove the film as a “no-brainer.”
One could be forgiven for wondering whether any of Gone With The Wind’s cancellers has ever actually watched the film
Given the nature of the invective, one could be forgiven for wondering whether any of Gone With The Wind’s cancellers has ever actually watched the film, especially in an era when millennials – who dominate streaming service usage – lack the time, interest, or attention span to sit through an old movie that clocks in at nearly four hours. Indeed, more than 75 per cent of millennials surveyed in 2017 reported never having seen any film made in the 1940s or 1950s, let alone in the 1930s.
Education has not and is unlikely to remedy the situation. Screening Gone With The Wind has long been taboo on American campuses, where freedom of speech and expression are now themselves fading memories of a bygone age. When National Public Radio’s insipid All Things Considered program departed from its usual wallpaper paste-dull content to research a story on the film on the occasion of its seventy-fifth anniversary in 2014, it found that many of its ostensibly well-educated younger staffers had, in fact, never seen it. Their blistering ignorance was shared by a film class at Washington’s prestigious Georgetown University (my alma mater), in which most of the students confessed to NPR that they had not seen it, either.
This did not stop them from having opinions about it, however. As one of these best and brightest of young American scholars so eloquently put it, “Everything I’ve seen about it says it, like, glorifies the slave era … and I dunno, what’s the point of that? I don’t see that as a good time in history … like, oh, sweet, a love story of people who own slaves.” Ridley’s complaint that simply seeing Gone With The Wind listed among hundreds of other films on HBO Max was so “painful” that he wrote an open letter to major newspaper demanding its removal suggests that he himself may never have found the intestinal fortitude to sit through it all.
Does Gone With The Wind really “glorify” the slave era and the Old South that was defined by it? For those who have not seen the film, it is a tempestuous love story set against the backdrop of that world’s total destruction during and after the American Civil War. At the time it was made, it was as far removed in time from that conflict as we are now removed from World War II. The film shows no heroic battle scenes, but rather devastated landscapes, long casualty lists, an epic panorama shot showing a field of wounded, and, mercifully in the shadows, a horrific leg amputation conducted without anaesthetic. It makes no heroic statement about the antebellum South and its fate, but fits neatly within the pacifist ethos of the interwar era in which it was made, in which a solid 75 per cent of Americans opposed any involvement in the world war that broke out that same year.
Within the first thirty minutes, the film’s rebellious anti-hero Rhett Butler condemns the imminent war as hopeless folly to a large gathering of headstrong Southern gentlemen. His opinion is so unpopular that he is nearly challenged to a duel. Almost all of those present who are identified by name later die inglorious off-screen deaths while their splendorous surroundings lie in the path of Sherman’s devastating march to the sea. Rhett spends the rest of the film, even when romancing the vain and narcissistic Scarlett O’Hara — who refers to plantation life as “Hell,” — mocking the very “Cause” that so many of today’s woke warriors hate, along with all of the old South’s other social conventions. The survivors are condemned to squalor, with Scarlett reduced to eating raw turnips while her sisters callous their hands picking cotton and her once proud but now insane father clutches worthless Confederate war bonds. She rebuilds the family’s blighted fortunes through hard nosed entrepreneurship in the commercial economy, doing business with the northern occupiers and employing not recently emancipated slaves but less expensive white convict labourers. Her crush Ashley Wilkes, the son of a neighbouring plantation owner, opposes war, abhors slavery, and we learn, planned to free his family’s slaves upon inheriting them had the war not intervened. While slavery is depicted in the film, nothing in it suggests that it was good or anything to be missed. The film’s vilest character by far is the O’Hara’s overseer, an unscrupulous Northerner, whom we first meet when Mrs. O’Hara disdainfully informs him of the death of his newborn child by a poor local girl he had impregnated and abandoned. The last time we see him, now a carpetbagger using his allegiance to torment his former employers, Scarlett throws a fistful of dirt in his face after he tries to bully the impoverished O’Haras into selling him their family home at a cut rate, deriding them in the process for being Irish. Even the O’Haras’ slaves look down on this miscreant as “no-count white trash.”
Even if the casual observer still thinks this ceaseless stream of death and degradation glorifies the antebellum American South, Gone With The Wind does not end at all happily. Rhett and Scarlett marry after she survives two lesser husbands whom she uses rather than loves, but their only child dies young in a horrible riding accident, her life cut short by the same cavalier horsemanship that defined a vanished culture of equestrian gentility. Still obsessed with Ashley, Scarlett drives the exasperated Rhett to leave, famously telling her that he “frankly” does not “give a damn” about her fate. Abandoned to her neuroses, she is trapped between an irretrievable past and an uncertain future.
This melodrama is hardly the stuff of glory. It is hard to imagine a cell of even the most determined white nationalists using the film to inculcate racist values in the future builders of a white ethnostate, or anyone else viewing it as anything other than epic fantasy set in a universe that cannot exist. Its popularity has never been in doubt. A smash hit upon release, it remained the top selling American film until The Godfather displaced it in the 1970s, and, adjusted for inflation, it has been rated the highest grossing film of all time. When it was first televised in 1976, an estimated 47 per cent of American households tuned in. When Turner Classic Movies premiered in 1994, it was the first film broadcast. According to a 2014 poll, 73 per cent of Americans who had seen Gone With The Wind – and, ironically given the current context, an identical 73 per cent of black Americans who had seen it — rated it “good,” “very good,” or “one of the best” films ever made.
HBO Max’s executives may have imagined this light form of Maoism as a good marketing ploy or at least as a way to avoid being condemned for “silence.”
After a well justified and encouragingly effective outcry, HBO Max has now returned the film to its service, albeit with “a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement” of its objectionable features in the hope that a preachy lecture to viewers will help “create a more just, equitable and inclusive future.” Jacqueline Stewart, a University of Chicago film and media studies professor, provides this discussion. She has stated that Gone With The Wind should “stay in circulation and remain available for viewing,” but mainly as “a prime text for examining expressions of white supremacy in popular culture.” Disturbed by the film’s failure to show a sufficient amount of black suffering, her goal is to warn those who choose to watch it against “false pedigrees” with glamorous Southern aristos whose haughty bearing could deceive “working class and poor white viewers” from forming “beneficial alliances with their Black working class and poor counterparts.” Her fundamental goal is to transform an undisputed American classic into material for “re-education,” a term rarely associated with any democratic society. HBO Max’s executives may have imagined this light form of Maoism as a good marketing ploy or at least as a way to avoid being condemned for “silence.” Either way, until this incident I had never heard of their service. Now I have a reason not to subscribe to it.
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