The novel and film Gone with the Wind is a huge footnote in the history of America’s Jim Crow era. Among its main characters are Ashley Wilkes, once a southern gentleman, later a broken confederate soldier. Film historian Leonard J. Leff notes in an Atlantic Monthly article, “Moviegoers attending Gone with the Wind, hearing the cannon fire approaching Atlanta, seeing the city burn and the fields go fallow, may have felt they understood Ashley Wilkes’ melancholy.” Indeed, Ashley is nostalgic for the days of “cavaliers and cotton fields” and, as he says wistfully in the film, “high, soft Negro laughter from the quarter.” The desire to reinforce racial segregation even further during the Depression era found a voice in the narrative and resonated with white Americans who believed that they had been disenfranchised. It finds a voice again today.
In June 2015, then presidential candidate Donald Trump said at a campaign rally, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”
“They’re sending people that have a lot of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” he added. He continued, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Fast forward to 2017. After a group of “alt-right” neo-Nazis yelling the slogans “white lives matter” and “blood and soil” rioted against the removal of Confederate statues in Charlottesville, Virginia, resulting in the death of three people and over 30 others injured, President Trump said, “I think there is blame on both sides.” This sentiment was quickly echoed by former Chief of Staff General John Kelly while speaking on Fox News. General Kelly discussed efforts to remove Confederate monuments and symbols, calling the commander of the Confederate States Army, Robert E. Lee, “an honorable man,” as well as saying, “lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience has to make their stand.”
More recently, bemoaning the fact that the South Korean film Parasite won not only Best International Feature Film, but also Best Picture, Directing, and Writing (Original Screenplay) at this year’s 2020 Oscars, Trump asked at a February political rally in Colorado Springs, “What the hell was that all about?”
“We got enough problems with South Korea with trade,” he went on to say of a close U.S. ally. “I’m looking for like … let’s get Gone with the Wind, can we get Gone with the Wind back, please?” asked Trump. “Sunset Boulevard. So many great movies,” he continued. “The winner from South Korea, I thought it was best foreign film. Best foreign movie. No … did this ever happen before?”
No, never in Oscar history has a non-English language film won the award for Best Picture. Many welcomed the South Korean film’s win as a sign of the Academy’s increasing willingness to recognize and esteem non-Eurocentric work. Therefore, Trump’s criticism that films made during Hollywood’s Golden Age, namely Gone with the Wind (1939) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), films that were not even in the running for the 2020 Oscars, were more deserving of this year’s Best Picture Award than Parasite sparked immediate outcry from pundits across the political spectrum on Twitter.
Charlotte Clymer, of the LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, described Trump “openly pining” for the film starring Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh as “the doggiest dogwhistle that ever dogwhistled.” Max Boot, a conservative columnist for The Washington Post, noted how Trump “talks far more harshly about South Korea than North Korea” and said the president’s love for the “pro-Confederate” film was “very telling.”
Trump’s uncritical recasting of films like Gone with the Wind in the realm of public imagination raises questions about how popular entertainment influences our understanding of our past and present political moment. Only a month after Trump’s racist remarks in 2015, law scholar Cass R. Sunstein wrote in an article for The Atlantic that Gone with the Wind is “less about politics than it is about the human heart” and therefore “should not be mistaken for a defense of slavery or even the Confederacy.” However, it is clear that beyond the president’s admiration for this cultural artifact, Trump and those within his administration have played an active role in adapting Confederate scripts, such Gone with the Wind’s narrative, for their own political purposes since his inauguration. The president’s latest remarks demonstrate that unresolved social tensions at the intersection of race, class, and gender are the reason why references to the Civil War keeps reappearing in today’s political discourse.
From the pages of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, to David O. Selznick’s big screen film, and throughout the following decades, the narrative’s main character, Scarlett O’Hara, has transformed in the eyes of her audiences even as she has endured in the U.S. cultural imagination. In a book called The Dream of the Great American Novel, antebellum American literature scholar Lawrence Buell argues that as an all-time bestseller, Gone with the Wind is not considered part of the traditional American literary canon, although some would argue that it should be. He suggests that Scarlett’s story looms so largely in the American cultural imagination because it comments on the human condition, because it is not merely a popular romance novel, but numbers itself among other genres as well. “It would be hard to find a more dramatic example of high culture/ middlebrow culture stratification in U.S. literary history of the past century than the concurrent publication, in 1936, of Absalom, Absalom! and Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind,” he writes. “These novels still stand as the most monumental sagas of their kinds of the transit from the late plantation era through Civil War and Reconstruction.”
Indeed, respective sales for the release of the novel in 1936 and its translation into film in 1939, even after being adjusted for inflation, remain among the largest in history. Now, just over 80 decades later, the American Film Institute displays Gone with the Wind ranked among the 10 greatest films of all time, and book polls done in recent years list the novel’s popularity as second only to the Bible. Furthermore, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story continues to inspire retellings through adaptation (both authorized and unauthorized), reanalysis, and re-appropriation.
Recent events, such as controversy over the removal of Confederate flags and statues, underscore that films and novels like Gone with the Wind are contentious landmarks that continue to be discussed and readapted. On one hand, critics have largely vilified the novel and film for their portrayals of an idealized South. On the other hand, for these same reasons, or even despite them, the narrative has found critical supporters—and no shortage of fans from audiences across the globe. Popular novelist Pat Conroy exemplifies the tenacity of this support in his preface to the 75th anniversary edition of the book, in which he writes that while growing up he learned the power of storytelling from his mother, for whom “The movie version of Gone with the Wind, like the book, was a house of worship.” Nevertheless, Conroy would later refuse to write an authorized sequel as a result of the constraints of the Mitchell Estate, which demanded there be no miscegenation, mixed-race characters, or “unorthodox sexuality.” Conroy might therefore be considered exemplary of both the critical and the appreciative legacies Gone with the Wind has managed to produce.
The literary and cinematic narrative about a belle of antebellum southern society who subverts traditional ideas of women’s roles in pursuit of love and land, allows mainly white female audiences to feel empowered without accepting the pressures and demands of labor movement factions, the NAACP, and other activist groups to abandon class and racial discrimination. In one of the most well-known books to examine the novel and the film simultaneously, Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited, feminist film critic Molly Haskell recalls, “In Richmond, Virginia, in the fifties, when I was a teenager, the effect was momentous, both seductive and incendiary… Gone with the Wind was a training manual for budding belles, a lesson in the laws of sexual manipulation and flirtation directed toward marriage.” Referring to the black characters in Mitchell’s novel as “her Negroes,” Haskell writes about the scene where Scarlett, played by Vivien Leigh, slaps her female slave, Prissy, in the face for lying about her ability to help Scarlett deliver her sister-in-law’s child in the absence of trained doctors, “Prissy, with her whining, lying ways, is a stumbling point for most viewers, yet the humor and wild individuality she brings to the movie is a vital, idiosyncratic force. (Could anyone really wish away the moment when she screeches, ‘I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!’).”
Some could certainly and happily wish away that pernicious line, particularly Butterfly McQueen herself, the actor behind the role of Prissy. According to Haskell’s reception study, McQueen was something of a complainer: “Spikier or simply less compliant on the set, she fought Cukor–one of the film’s directors–over, among other things, the childbirth scene: she refused to take Scarlett’s direct slap (it was faked).” However, the slaps were all too real! In the 1988 documentary, The Making of a Legend: “Gone With the Wind,” McQueen recalled bargaining with Cukor, and promising to scream loudly if Leigh would only pretend to hit her face rather than continue to actually do so. Calling Walter White, the then president of the NAACP, “a self-appointed watchdog,” Haskell laments that black people involved with Gone with the Wind’s film production did not see it as a gift.
Yet, the narrative’s retrograde racial politics did not reflect the 1930s labor and civil rights advancements that were being made at the time in which it was produced, nor, despite what Trump may suggest, does it reflect the politics of today. Take, for example, Marian Anderson being invited by the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in 1939 to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being refused permission to perform at Constitution Hall because of her skin color; consider President Franklin D. Roosevelt passing the New Deal programs and projects mid-way through the Great Depression in order to provide relief to farmers and jobs to the unemployed. These actions promoted the advancement of black civil rights and enabled them to demand better labor conditions and wages. However, the film’s opening features a poem that reads, “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,” romanticizing an imagined past in which ‘civilization’ is defined by slave ownership and traditional hierarchies between men and women, and between the rich and the poor.
During the 1930s, the NAACP and leaders of the U.S. Labor movement such as the International Labor Defense (ILD), and the American Communist Party (CP), were highly active in the public sphere, pushing for social equality in the form of racial equality and labor rights. In addition, although these groups sometimes worked together, tensions remained between them as a result of the racist ideology of many members of the labor movement, who wanted their activities to exclude black people and many other minority groups. For instance, tensions arose over who would organize the legal defense for the highly publicized “Scottsboro Boys” case, in which nine black teenagers were falsely accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama in 1931. This trial was well known at the time that Gone with the Wind was being written by Mitchell, a genteel upper-middle class white woman from Atlanta, and adapted by Selznick, an enterprising Hollywood producer. It is highly likely that Gone with the Wind, with its fascination with racial phantasmagoria and issues of class mobility, was created in response to the historical situation these artists found themselves in.
Nevertheless, the artists remained invested in conservative social politics despite the changes happening around them. While Mitchell, a professional journalist, did grapple with first wave feminist issues, her novel pointedly ignores the push in America for other forms of social equality. Indeed, Mitchell believed in ‘separate but equal’ segregation policies. She was known to be a donor to Morehouse College, a historically black institution, but also refused to sit next to a black woman in her class while attending Smith College. Therefore, it is no surprise that the narrative’s tropes are in line with traditional southern literary depictions of moonlight, magnolias, and antebellum aristocracy.
Accordingly, the novel and film were received negatively by members of the U.S. labor movement and NAACP supporters. As literature scholar M. Carmen Gómez-Galisteo points out in her book, The Wind Is Never Gone: Sequels, Parodies and Rewritings of Gone with the Wind, the Communist Daily Worker newspaper called the novel “vicious,” “reactionary,” “inciting to race hatred,” and “justifying Ku Klux Klan.” The Chicago Defender, a prominent black newspaper, said Gone with the Wind was a “weapon of terror against black America.” She goes on to highlight that of the film, the New York branch of the Communist Party complained:
“Gone with the Wind revives every foul slander against the Negro people, every stock-in-trade lie of the Southern lynchers….Not only is this vicious picture calculated to provoke race riots, but also to cause sectional strife between the North and the South just when the growth of the labor and progressive movement has made possible the increasing unity of Negro and white, in behalf of the common interest of both.”
Similar to how members of the Trump administration dismiss accusations of racism leveled against them, both Mitchell and Selznick responded to these accusations of racism, arguing that they had afforded black people as much dignity as possible. When questioned about her portrayal of black Americans in her book, Mitchell said, “Heaven knows I had and have no intention of ‘insulting the Race.’” In direct response to pressure put upon him by the then NAACP President Walter White, Selznick altered the script so that black characters were called “darkies” or alternatively “inferiors,” but never “nigger.” Nevertheless, audiences are hard pressed to identify more than a couple characters who can arguably be construed as intelligent, positive representations of black people in either narrative. At the same time, however, black and white, rich and poorer audiences alike bought books and tickets to Gone with the Wind.
Afro-Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid offers a perspective that does a thorough job of weighing the pros and cons of the narrative. In an article for the Village Voice, titled, “If Mammies Ruled the World,” she zeros in on how Mammy is described as having a code of conduct and sense of pride that “were as high as or higher than those of her owners” and a deep wisdom. Kincaid liked Gone with the Wind in the sense that Scarlett is a “petulant bitch” and Rhett a “dashing chump,” who do not deserve Mammy’s attempts to save them from social ruin. On the surface, Kincaid seems to agree with Haskell’s assessment of the narrative’s cultural importance. The difference between their evaluations is that Haskell does not think the depiction of black people in the novel and film are terribly racist and Kincaid does.
The film and publication industry has experienced some changes since the 1930s, with black-directed productions like Ava Duvernay’s Selma, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther increasing in number. In this context, Gone with the Wind might seem like an odd artifact for a president to unearth at a political rally in the era of Black Lives Matter. And yet, it is impossible to separate taking pleasure in cinema entirely from its anti-black entertainment roots.
In an interview with The New Yorker, Duvernay explained, “I work in an industry built on the back of the film, The Birth of a Nation,” she told the audience. “And so you have, you know, a century of work built on a framework that was flawed and that was exclusive to a certain kind of person and mindset.” As in Gone with the Wind, The Birth of a Nation (1915) and the novel it is based on, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s The Clansman (1905), portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic group championing white southern women. In the film and the novel, the Ku Klux Klan saves the nation from being overrun by black people after the Civil War, who are depicted as violent, lazy, and conniving.
Duvernay went on to explain how despite the film industry being set up to cater to straight, white men, as a child she fell in love with the possibilities films could potentially offer and decided to carve her niche. Similarly, black writers like Jamaica Kincaid offer their own readings of Gone with the Wind, some of which point to possibly redeeming aspects of the narrative, while other black writers, such as Alice Randall, author of The Wind Done Gone, have chosen to attack the premise of Gone with the Wind head on.
It is debatable whether Mitchell and Selznick were intending to be inclusive in their portrayal of Mammy, Prissy, Dilcey, Uncle Peter, and the rest of the house slaves who are largely featured in the narrative as loyal sidekicks. Literary scholar Alex Woloch comments in his book, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel, “the protagonist, the ‘one,’ gains its rich and textured humanity only in relation to the many minor characters: we know what ‘round’ characters look like because we have the experience of ‘flat’ ones.” Who could or would want to be like Prissy, who is described repeatedly as a “simple-minded wench” and a “black wraith” who “smells abominably?” On the other hand, black-latina comparative literature scholar Dixa Ramirez suggests that perhaps her mother gave her “Scarlett” as a middle name simply because she was able “to admire Scarlett’s rebellion against the social norms that constrained wealthy white women in a way that a 34-year-old scholar of race, gender, and colonialism — me — cannot.”
It is clear that various people have attempted to develop notably different ideas about this particular narrative. Audiences appreciate the countervailing ideological and sexual political winds crisscrossing the novel and film. In the same way that cult followers of Star Wars enjoy picking apart ‘the canon,’ the American public remains fascinated with discerning the mental gymnastics Mitchell and Selznick pulled off in order to create their characters and adapt Confederate scripts to modern times. Their work has motivated artists who have reauthored the narrative, like the writer Alexandra Ripley and the conceptual poet Vanessa Place, to appropriate it. It has also motivated others, such as poet, Natasha Trethewey, to rebuke it. In this way, they connected issues of the past to the present.
The peculiar evolution of this specific narrative has occurred in tandem with shifts in cultural attitudes. And yet, despite political shifts that have occurred since the late 19th and early 20th century, the so-called ‘lost cause of the confederacy’ finds memorializers in today’s political leaders. The latest shift has been the most troubling, with the global resurgence of populism and white nationalism. It is of little surprise then that now, Trump seeks to uncritically recast Gone with the Wind in the realm of popular imagination.
Kori Cooper is currently a J.D. candidate at Columbia Law School, an affiliate of the school’s Human Rights Institute, and a Davis Polk Leadership Fellow. Before arriving in New York, she conducted research as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow in Chicago and acted as a Young Ambassador for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, China, promoting interaction and cooperation between China and the United States. She graduated with a B.A. in English Literature and Chinese Studies from Northwestern University, having written my English major thesis on the cultural legacy of Gone with the Wind. With the Davis Polk fellowship, she founded and lead “Black Voices on Greater China,” a project focused on amplifying Black voices and perspectives in Sinology. You can find me on Twitter @Cooper_Esquire.