As it approaches its 80th birthday, Gone with the Wind is as prevalent in American pop culture and film history as ever. It repeatedly nabs top spots on the most prestigious rankings of the greatest movies ever made and finding someone who’s unfamiliar with Rhett’s most famous line would still be a good deal harder than finding someone who isn’t. And amid all of this, for 30 years I have been actively avoiding this movie.
I knew startlingly little about it, to be honest. I knew it was set in the South, I knew there was some drama between Scarlett and Rhett and that Rhett did not give a damn about something, I knew it was indescribably long, and I knew it was considered racist. I was already disinterested, but sprinkle some racism in the mix and it was pretty easy to just take a hard pass on this one.
But when the opportunity to write about it for the site popped up, I knew it would be the perfect excuse for me to finally sit down and see it for myself. I thought that I might be able to enjoy it for its craft, and I thought I might be bored. I thought that while I was certain it’d be racist, that it’d be the kind that takes an intellectual and scholarly understanding of it to be properly unsettled by it. I have no idea why I thought this, but I did.
I was wrong on almost every account.
For a four-hour-long Civil War drama, I was practically rapt. I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie so gorgeous. It’s the kind of movie Technicolor and 70mm and the big screen were all made for. Scarlett and Rhett’s endlessly complicated love affair was fascinating. And I spent almost the entire four hours in a furious, unceasing rage.
Gone with the Wind is easily the most virulently racist movie I have ever seen, and when I wasn’t rolling my eyes or quite literally shouting at the screen, I was clutching my stomach with disgust.
The film’s sympathy for the Confederates is boundless. It depicts a world where Southerners are nothin’ but a bunch of good ol’ boys and dashing gentlemen ready to fight for honor and freedom and posits that perhaps the slaves were happier then after all. There are no chains, no mothers being ripped from their children on the auction block, no iron muzzles, no bruises on their bodies. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be a single slave that’s anything other than sickeningly ecstatic to work for Scarlett and her ilk despite how terribly she actually treats them.
In short, it erases everything from the black experience as if none of it mattered at all. This is a four-hour-long epic obsessed with the pain and suffering of rich white Southerners that hate the Yankees and wish the South had stayed exactly the way it was when they freely built their empires on the backs of slaves.
It is in love with the lie of the “happy darky”—the slave grateful for his master. The film even addresses the concept head on as Scarlett builds her business in the second half of the story. She’s shown willing to hire poor, white, Southern prisoners to work for her for dirt cheap and Ashley chastises her. Doesn’t she know they’ll be beaten? A quippy Scarlett retorts that Ashley had no issue with the matter when he owned slaves, and the script has the gaul to have him reply, “We didn’t treat them that way!” Of course not, Ashley. Of course.
The scene dramatically lingers over the white prisoners in chains. We never see the reality of the slaves’ chains, but the film delights in this opportunity to stoke our sympathy for the defeated Confederates even more. This is not subtle. This is egregious.
Even its “feminism” left more than a little to be desired. Yes, Scarlett gets to be strong and bull-headed, and she gets to be business savvy and smart. But she’s also punished by the film for all of these qualities again and again and again and again. Her husbands die, her child dies, and the true love of her life leaves her as soon as she realizes she loves him. Add to that the fact that the “love of her life” has abused and raped her, and I honestly have no idea what the hell I’m supposed to be cheering for.
I’m glad I finally saw it so I could properly judge it for myself, but I’m not convinced others need to do the same. Like Touch of Evil and The Jazz Singer, Gone with the Wind’s place in the canon is sealed. Nothing can undo the impact it’s had on film history or American culture at large, but I shock even myself when I say that I don’t think there’s any reason to keep watching it.
Should it be banned? Of course not. I would never advocate for such a thing. But I don’t think it has anything to teach us about film that can’t easily be learned from other equally gorgeous and expertly made movies that aren’t a racist, revisionist history of the Civil War. The argument that is most often made against this line of reasoning is that the film is too valuable to ignore simply because of its poor politics. But the sad truth of the matter is that this argument must be made for nearly every movie Hollywood produced for 50 years or more.
We already have to get past the poor gender politics of most film noir and the anti-native racism of Westerns and decade after decade where you could not be black in Hollywood and do anything other than sing or dance in the background. We have to make this argument again and again and again. So I argue that it’s worth making an exception for a film whose depiction of the Civil War has rewritten it in the most damaging way possible. The film’s place in history is cemented and I’m happy to give any and all budding cinephiles a free pass to never, ever watch it because frankly, I just don’t give a damn.