Film & TV

Why GWTW Lives Matter

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. (Warner Bros./via IMDb)
Save art — Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation — to save ourselves.

The campaign to censor the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, beginning with screenwriter John Ridley’s June 8th op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, looks like a cynical promotional ploy to promote the launch of HBO Max, the new streaming platform owned by Warner Bros. (The service recently made news by announcing a broadcast of The Snyder Cut, director Zack Snyder’s unreleased version of Justice League — an event that was widely greeted as a triumph of populism.)

Ridley kept HBO Max’s brand recognition going when he drew attention to GWTW, one of the offerings in HBO Max’s lineup. This ploy also brought attention to Ridley, the race-hustler who won an Oscar for the screenplay of 12 Years a Slave. Ridley’s typical careerist posturing in his op-ed pressed the PC button in every paragraph, using surefire, woke buzz phrases: “marginalized communities,” “stereotypes of people of color,” “romanticizes the Confederacy,” “hate,” “conversations,” “racial tolerance,” “bigotry,” “racism,” “I don’t believe in censorship.” It was like reading a propaganda screed — or watching the head-thumping didactic horrors of 12 Years a Slave for an unimaginable second time.

This was a bandwagon strategy, taking advantage of current Black Lives Matter momentum, for current product- and self-promotion. But it comes at the expense of our cultural well-being. Ridley’s unsubtle suggestion to block GWTW (for “a respectful amount of time,” which doesn’t address the film’s almost monthly airings on Turner Classic Movies) shows an anti-human, anti-art impulse. HBO Max’s immediate compliance with Ridley’s scam is the most cowardly Hollywood act since Steven Spielberg signed on to the Directors Guild of America’s decision to remove D. W. Griffith’s name from its awards in 1989. Punishing Griffith, the man who invented the art of cinema, for making The Birth of a Nation was another act of politically correct careerism and censorship, notably perpetrated by another mediocre filmmaker: Paris Barclay.

What’s lost by these Soviet-style acts — which are also acts of reverse racism — is the special insight into human nature and national character provided by works of art such as GWTW and The Birth of a Nation (1916), both Civil War dramas, both at the center of American identity, thus both controversial. The loss is part of the dumbing-down that has brought poorly educated, unemployed, restless, locked-down youths into the streets. They’ve been indoctrinated to think they’re protesting for justice yet don’t acknowledge how their own frustrations stem from the lockdown. They lack a cultural foundation and therefore self-knowledge. Seeing Gone with the Wind would give them a richer understanding of the American ethos — the complexity of history and imagination as embodied by white Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara, her black slave Mammy, and all the characters between them. They should understand how Gone with the Wind lives matter, too.

***

Thirties Hollywood was so much more richly imaginative than today’s that dramas such as Gone with the Wind and Make Way for Tomorrow could also be constructed like screwball comedies. Viewers of mature intelligence and life experience appreciated the distinction. Only fools think Gone with the Wind glorifies the Confederacy. Scarlett, the greatest female character in American movies (unforgettably portrayed by Vivien Leigh), is so apolitical that she’s both likable and identifiable, which makes her an astonishing and instructive figure. When her romantic match Rhett Butler rousts the Ku Klux Klan, she couldn’t care less; she wants money and comfort — whatever it takes, which makes her exercise of liberty quintessentially American. She’s appealing and appalling, a fascinating, recognizable mirror.

In an essay praising GWTW as her favorite movie, Ellen Willis, the singular feminist writer, once wrote, “Fascination with movie heroines was part of female culture when I was growing up. I learned about being a teenager from rock and roll, but I learned about being a woman from the movies.” Millennial culture rarely teaches audiences about being human; media indoctrination is only about being a political functionary. To deny Scarlett is to deny ourselves, our human, national truth. And Mammy (given vivid depth by Hattie McDaniel) always sees right through her — and says so. Mammy’s moral consciousness is a more edifying contribution to American culture than the miseries that Ridley’s 12 Years inflicted upon filmgoers, debasing them while creating a culture of strife and inconsolable anger. (We all should respect McDaniel’s moving Oscar acceptance speech, apparently made under stress but coming from her heart. McDaniel knew more than any BLM poseur.)

GWTW and The Birth of a Nation are the most popular movies ever made (when box-office accounts are adjusted for inflation). These historical romances are interesting for divining American spirit; their art surpasses politics — even political correctness. The comic slave Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) undercuts Ridley’s brand of woke sanctimony when she responds to a command from Scarlett with an unmistakable F-bomb pantomime. (It cleverly defied Hollywood’s restrictive Production Code. Ridley should look for it, and learn.)

Millennial moralizers don’t understand that GWTW was the work of Hollywood progressives. Each character’s life was given humane measure, which Hollywood no longer knows how to do. The 2011 film The Help, Netflix’s most watched film during the COVID quarantine, featured Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer serving a shit pie to a white nemesis, and her psychotic act is meant as racial payback — Antifa comedy. Nothing in GWTW is so depraved. Instead, its characters represent common psychological struggle, their spiritual desperation penetrating to the tragic heart of American ambition. (“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”) That’s why Scarlett’s confounding story is delightful yet so powerful — only Michael Corleone’s comes close. When maniacal progressives are on a censorious rampage — and our corporations and institutions go along with it — we lose our cultural foundation and deny the truth about ourselves.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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