Asked how she could debase herself to the level of playing Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Hattie McDaniel replied, “I’d rather play the maid and make $700 a week than be a maid and make $7.”
Now McDaniel’s iconic performance, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, the first and only black winner in that category until 1990, stands under threat of being erased from the cultural memory. A Memphis theater that screens Gone with the Wind annually announced that it is withdrawing it from future showings. At this moment that decision may look like a trivial detail from the silly-season panic attached to all art works with historically uncomfortable connotations, but I’ll wager it’s just the beginning of what figures to be a devastating war on this film. I expect Gone with the Wind will disappear from sight within a few years.
For large corporations such as Time Warner, which owns the film through its Turner Entertainment subsidiary, the cost of being associated with racism in even the most remote way probably exceeds the value of even such a towering cinematic landmark as Gone with the Wind. Any month now, I expect, the film will be tagged with a disclaimer/trigger warning about its portrayal of slaves in antebellum Georgia and the war years, but that will just provide a pleasing aroma of blood in the water to the culture-cleansers. If the pressure on Time Warner becomes acute, it will simply stop showing the film on Turner Classic Movies or leasing it to streaming services. (It is currently available on Amazon Prime.) After that will come an inevitable clamor to withdraw the DVD from sale. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Time Warner meekly bowed and acquiesced.
There is precedent for such a decision, drastic though it would be. Another major studio, Disney, has effectively extinguished one of its racially questionable classics, 1946’s Song of the South. That film is never shown on television, hasn’t been in theaters since 1986, and has never been released on home video in the United States.
It can, however, easily be found on the Internet; google “Song of the South full movie.” I just watched it for the first time, and what I’m shocked about is how unshocking the film is. Despite its aura of forbidden status, it’s far less offensive than Gone with the Wind.
The thing everyone knows about Song of the South isn’t true: It doesn’t romanticize slavery or portray slaves as contented. It doesn’t portray slavery at all. Based on Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, it takes place during Reconstruction, though the only strong indication we have that slavery is no longer in effect doesn’t arrive until the last act, when Uncle Remus is shown sadly packing up his things and deciding to leave the plantation for Atlanta because he is no longer wanted by the white family that owns the property. Slaves didn’t have the option to walk away. The black workers seen in the film are sharecroppers, not slaves.
What gives offense in Song of the South is that black characters speak in an exaggerated pidgin (“In dem days, duh critters, dey was closer to the folk and the folks, dey was closer to the critters”) and are portrayed as supportive and friendly toward the white landowners. But many films depict blacks speaking in dialect. As for films about blacks being cheerfully subservient to white people, if we’re going to start banning those, I say The Legend of Bagger Vance should be first to go, not because it’s insensitive but because it’s terrible.
Song of the South holds some historical interest: McDaniel appeared in a small role (essentially reprising her GWTW performance), it melded live action with animation in a groundbreaking way that presaged Mary Poppins and, much later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and it won an Oscar for Best Original Song (“Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”) as well as an honorary Oscar for James Baskett, who portrayed the kindly Uncle Remus. It was also an enormous box-office success.
But the main reason Disney can afford to bury Song of the South is that the film is artistically nothing special. Dated, obvious, and thinly written, it’s easy to forget even if you don’t factor in racial insensitivity. Gone with the Wind is another story: It contains some of the most magnificent moments in screen history. Corrected for inflation, it’s the biggest box-office success ever, having earned $1.8 billion in theaters in today’s dollars. Yet Prissy and Mammy are cringe-inducing, through no fault of the performers playing them, and the film unquestionably romanticizes slavery. For its defenders to pretend that it doesn’t seems like a losing strategy.
Gone with the Wind is an indelible part of cinema history, mostly for good but also for ill, and belongs in the same cultural category as historical monuments. Unlike many of those statues and markers, though, Gone with the Wind exists in a purely private space. Those who find it offensive can easily avoid it. But Time Warner should resist the pressure to withdraw it that is surely coming. A company with a proud place in cinematic history shouldn’t create a precedent of self-censorship.