Tuesday, March 3, 2009

“Gone With the Wind,” And What It Says Today about How Americans Think About Race

By Stephen Menendian, Senior Legal Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Despite being an avid film buff, I watched “Gone With the Wind” for the first time recently. I was caught off guard by not only the degree of racism in the film (and not just the obvious stuff), but in particular by how closely the film resembles D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” and yet how differently the two films are regarded, even today.

The depiction/glorification of the antebellum south and reconstruction in GWTW is almost identical to BOAN, and not simply in substance and storytelling, but in tone and genre creation. Both films are adaptations of sweeping, romantic, 20th Century Southern apologist narratives: GWTW was an adaptation of the Margaret Mitchell novel by the same name, and BOAN of Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman.” Evidently, all of the KKK scenes were left out of the film adaptation of GWTW, the main difference between the two films.

GWTW is widely regarded not only as a technical masterpiece, but as a great American film. It is hailed as a film that moves and inspires generations of American movie-watchers for Scarlett’s fortitude and perseverance. The American Film Institute lists it variously as the 4th or 7th greatest film of all time, and as one of the greatest romantic films of all time. In contrast, BOAN is taught in introductory film classes for its technical achievements, its ground breaking cinematic techniques and masterful direction. Although BOAN was originally listed as the 44th greatest American film in the 1998 list, it was – revealingly -- removed from the 2007 list and replaced by D.W. Griffith’s apologetic thematic sequel, “Intolerance.” Given that GWTW was made three decades later, I didn't quite expect it to be as blatantly racist as BOAN, and yet the two films are so similar in style and substance.

The difference in how the two films are regarded is revealing to me in what it says about how Americans today think about race and racism. When I returned the film to the movie store, the clerk was surprised when I said that I was taken aback by the film’s racism. The racism in GWTW seems to be so easily elided or explained by GWTW apologists as an unfortunate incident to the film’s setting rather than an integral part of its meaning. Does it really take a man in a white robe before an American sees racism? Is it really that hard to see that the ideology of the film, the nostalgia and romanticism of the antebellum south that underpins the film was itself a virulently racist worldview?

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