Last week, the streaming service HBO Max announced that it would remove the film based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel “Gone with the Wind” until further notice. I heard the news in my car, having just pulled into the parking lot of the organic food co-op of which I am a proud member/owner. The co-op’s windows were plastered with photos of George Floyd. Anyone who didn’t blame all cops for his murder was not welcome. I went in anyway.
Just a week before this, I’d been sitting in a different parking lot, in St. Paul’s Midway district, to support protesters and to witness their reported violence. To my right, a line of mostly young people began shouting obscenities at the cops. To my left, a line of police unleashed a volley of tear gas canisters. Across the street was a burning building that the cops were attempting to refrain from protecting. They responded to the insulting chant instead, and when a canister hit my car, I knew that discipline had finally succumbed to emotion. Pride. Defensiveness. Call it what you will. I and the person whom I’d asked to drive the car while I took pictures fled the scene.
Fast-forward to the co-op parking lot. This time I resisted the urge to flee — i.e., drive home, unload my groceries and forget the injustice being done to Margaret Mitchell. This time I asked myself to think this through before running away. What exactly had me so freaked out over the banning of a film about the Civil War? Was it connected to the feelings aroused by the line of cops and the George Floyd posters?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about fascism. Though I didn’t experience firsthand Hitler’s rise and fall (and maybe because I didn’t), I am obsessed with the man in whose long shadow I have lived my entire life.
I grew up in the Cold War era, in which Stalin’s rise on the heels of Hitler’s demise caused many Americans to equate fascism with socialism. Stalin was not a socialist but a tyrant.
My mind wandered. I wondered how German supporters of the Weimer Republic felt as their democratic institutions were sacrificed to economic expansion. In the guise of protecting its citizens from alleged unfairness and abuse, the Third Reich in fact deprived them of their freedom to think for themselves.
I wonder if this is happening to my country, as wealth is now concentrated in the hands of a ruling oligarchy united by a common purpose that overrides social issues: the desire to grow its power even, if necessary and expedient, in the guise of pursuing social justice. It’s a slippery slope from censorship to mind control.
“Gone with the Wind” is not racist, any more than Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” is racist — though it, too, has been banned in some quarters. In comparing these novels, I do not mean to invite critiques on their relative literary merit. I will say this: Twain’s novel is far superior. I will also say this: Twain was a man. And this: Though it does not appear in the canon, more Americans know what happened to Scarlett and Rhett than what happened to Huck and Jim. Even “bad” literature can have enormous influence. Lots of people read it, for one thing. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” brought the abolitionist’s cause to the attention of enough people deeply moved by the story to spark the Civil War.
I remember first watching “Gone with the Wind” as a teenager. How inspiring it was to see a wily and manipulative (by necessity) daughter of the antebellum South transform from reluctant subservience — she was the classic femme fatale catering to a white-male-dominated society (see also Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew”) — to self-sufficiency. Free at last to survive or die on her own terms and by her wits, she channels a deep-seated contempt for a system that enslaved blacks and women alike into what I regard as political action for good. She saves herself, her family and her former servants — first from death and then from poverty.
“Gone with the Wind” has seldom, if ever, been properly interpreted. Its middling literary reputation precludes its being granted the reprieve Twain’s masterpiece received in elite circles.
Even before the war, Scarlett’s servants admired her rebellious spirit, and their respect deepened into love during and after the war. Thanks to her, they themselves were transformed from menial order-takers to equals in the sawmill she shrewdly anticipated earning her family a fortune as the South began to rebuild.
The love the freed slaves had for their “mistress” was authentic, individual and much more complex than today’s labeling of people and their feelings can, perhaps, comprehend or tolerate. Scarlett was not only challenged by the collapse of the South. She was redeemed by it.
As I sat pondering all this in the co-op parking lot, it occurred to me how HBO Max’s censorship itself smacked of 21st-century American imperatives, an ominous flirtation with fascism, which feeds on groupthink. The move was not intended to protect blacks, but to promote its brand with young, affluent and politically active consumers. The streaming service fully expects to grow “brand awareness” by jumping on the groupthink bandwagon. A headline story in a national, mainstream media outlet is no mean feat.
The silver lining is this: Maybe the headline story will arouse curiosity about this allegedly profane film. Maybe people will want to read the book that is said to demand censoring. Maybe we will finally have an honest conversation about an American classic.
It is not racism that sabotaged “Gone with the Wind” (the film) but sexism. If you do get a chance to see it, ask yourself why the final scene is still remembered as the strong man having the last word (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”), if not to buttress 1950s misogyny?
In fact, the last word belonged to Scarlett, who realized that Rhett Butler was no longer a selfish con man. The new Rhett had risked his life to rescue not just the woman he loved but also her devoted (former) slaves and the sweet and submissive Melanie, who also loved Scarlett for the right reasons. The war changed both Scarlett and Rhett. Both found a way to be good. She understood that. He would, too, or so she hoped … some day.
Her parting words were: “I will get him back.” She smiled as she said it. He had won her heart fair and square.
Bonnie Blodgett, of St. Paul, specializes in environmental topics. She’s at email@example.com.