Racism in the Wind
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the 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...
The title card which scrolls down the screen at the beginning of Gone with the Wind foreshadows what the movie in going to present : a genteel, civilized world that was disrupted by the meddling Yankees. The Southern aristocracy is portrayed as kind and benevolent overseers of simple minded slaves. The audience in 1939 America is supposed to come away with the impression that the blacks were better off as slaves than they would be free. In the introduction to his book "The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film", Bruce Chadwick asserts that in order for the country to heal and reunify in the wake of this tragic war, "the Civil War's political and cultural history almost had to be rewritten so that the Southerners would never again be seen as harsh slaveowners or as the people who started and lost the war". It seems that the only way reunification of North and South could succeed was "for the war to be seen in the rearview mirror of history as a war not started by anyone, a conflict that had no winners or losers just a tragic war in which men on both sides fought gallantly".1
I must admit that when I was younger I bought into the romantic view of Tara. The cinematography and music helped transport me to a very different, almost magical world that existed long ago.
It has been pointed out that for its day, Gone with the Wind is a fairly balanced portrayal of the Old South. All references to the Klu Klux Klan and language offensive to the black community were removed from the script. There are very few scenes in which the slaves are abused. There is one in which Scarlett slaps Prissy because she is incompetent, but in general the slaves are portrayed as being fairly happy with their lot. Slave children are seen ringing the bell and fanning the napping ladies. Slaves are seen bringing in the livestock and lumber and plowing the fields. A scene in the fields, where the slaves are plowing, shows that slaves controlling their own working conditions.
"Who says its quitin time?"
"I says its quitin time."
"I'se the foreman. I'se the one says its quitin time at Tara. Quitin Time. Quitin Time."
Later on, in the streets of burning Atlanta, Miss Scarlett meets up with Tara's foreman, Big Sam, and some other slaves from Tara. Big Sam makes in perfectly clear that he is happy to be a slave and that he supports the Southern cause.
"And he (Scarlett's father) had a fit when they took all us field hands to dig a ditch for the white soldiers to hide in. But your Ma says the Confederacy needs us, so we goin' to dig for the South."
I know that there is historical data showing that there were slaves and free blacks who voluntarily worked for and fought for the South. However, I think the movie tries to portray this as the rule, instead of as an exception to the rule. The portrayals of Mammy, Big Sam, Prissy and the other slaves were paternalistic and demeaning.
"Goodbye Miss Scarlett. Don't worry. We stop them Yankees."
I love the panoramic scenes, colors and music in Gone with the Wind as it presents a romanticized version of the Old South. What I don't love is what I know to be behind the pictures. The knights and ladies were able to drink mint juleps and take naps in the afternoon because they were living off the forced labor of the captured slave population. James McPherson, prominent American historian writing in The New Republic, suggests if the images of the movie "Glory can replace that of moonlight and magnolias in Gone With the Wind as America's cinematic version of the Civil War, it will be a great gain for truth".2
The more I think about Gone with the Wind, the more I think it's like the play, Springtime for Hitler, within the movie The Producers. It was a horrible idea to write a play glorifying the Nazi culture. How much better is it to present a "pretty world (where) Gallantry took its last bow"? It has been suggested that the myth was created to help reunify the country, "of no winners or losers in the Civil War might have paved the way to Jim Crow laws and partially explain why it took until 1954 nearly 90 years after the end of the Civil War for the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, and nearly 100 years for the historic civil rights acts of 1964." 3 If this theory is true than the movie Gone with the Wind may actually have helped in keeping blacks from becoming fully enfranchised in America. The fictional world of Tara was a "pretty world" until you looked under the surface.
1. Chadwick, Bruce. The Reel Civil War: Mythmaking in American Film. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
2. McPherson, James M. "The Glory' story: the 54th Massachusetts and Civil War." The New Republic. Jan. 8, 1990 Vol. 202: 22-27.
3. Russell, Brian. http://www.helium.com/tm/104438, Considering the 1989 film Glory: Or, How A Previously Untold Story Helps Expose an Epic Myth.