“It’ll come to you, this love of the land. There’s no getting away from it if you’re Irish.”
In a film boiling over with beautiful writing, I have always thought this line, which Gerald O’Hara says in reference to land he owns, was one of the most striking and poignant in Gone With the Wind. It took me a long time to realize that this is also a very white, privileged thing to say in a movie all about white people with enormous amounts of privilege struggling to retain it after their way of life falls.
In simplest terms, Gone With the Wind is about the decline of the old southern culture after the Confederates lose the Civil War. It focuses on the O’Hara family and specifically the eldest daughter, Scarlett. It is about love, pride, and survival. Gone With the Wind is a truly great film—one of the greatest in cinematic history. It is gorgeous, creatively shot, the writing and the performances are lush and powerful. It is one of my all-time favorites. It has also been instrumental in teaching me how important it is to take the things we love and put them under critical lenses.
It is not new or insightful to say that Gone With the Wind deeply problematic in its depictions of race and slavery. After the south loses the war, no mention is made of the end of slavery as it relates to the slave characters in the film. Instead, the O’Hara’s slaves [Mammy, Prissy, Pork, and, to some degree, Big George] stay on with seemingly no desire to leave—a classic demonstration of the happy house slave stereotype. They don’t have families or love interests of their own; their only purpose in life is to serve the white family who essentially remain their masters even after the Emancipation Proclamation. And they’re happy to do so.
Ashley Wilkes, a gentle Confederate captain who never wanted to go to war in the first place, at one point begs Scarlett not to hire white convicts to work their lumber mill, asking her instead to let him hire “free darkies” because the convicts are badly treated by their Irish boss. Scarlett points out that there’s really no difference between slavery and hiring badly treated white convicts. Ashley insists that there is a difference because, “we didn’t treat them that way.” He then says he would have freed all his slaves anyway, after his father died if the war didn’t free them first.
This scene demonstrates the heart of the philosophy regarding slavery in the movie, and a larger attitude about slavery that still, to some degree, persists today. Slavery was a-ok so long as the family treated their slaves well. In fact, black folk were happier under the system of slavery because they didn’t know what to do with themselves after the end of slavery. They loved and were loyal to the families that owned them, and they never had any personal goals that were not related directly to the betterment of the white family. Gone With the Wind takes this stance by having the O’Hara’s house slaves stay on post-Civil War, and in other ways. Showing the dangerous and dingy shantytowns that freed slaves lived in and how carpetbaggers preyed on freed slaves naiveness, for example.
I never thought about any of this until college. I use a few movies as a kind of comfort food. If I’m sad or stressed, sick or very tired, there are some movies that will make me feel better. Gone With the Wind is one of my comfort food movies and, even now that I understand how wrongheaded and racist the portrayal of African Americans are. I acknowledge how that demonstrates pretty obnoxiously my own privilege as a white person. I have the freedom and comfort to enjoy a movie that relegates a whole race of people as eternal flat characters; mere helpers to the more beautiful, intelligent and interesting characters: the white people.
Here is a conclusion I have come to: it is OK to like problematic things. What is not OK is trying to flat-out deny that the thing you love is problematic.
There are plenty of people who love Gone With the Wind and will defend it to the death against charges of racism, but it’s futile. The fact is the film portrays harmful stereotypes. There are lots of really great films [and books, and television shows] that advance harmful ideas of one kind or another! It doesn’t necessarily mean people have to stop loving them. But I do think it’s important to talk about the flaws, and become educated about them. And keep on loving it, but with the acknowledgement that it could have done better. Don’t give the thing you love a free pass just because you love it.