By any metric, the events in Charlottesville will be remembered as a stain on American history.
Not since the Civil Rights Movement has there been such a blatant display of racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, and though I’d like to believe that the resultant tragedy will one day be looked at as the nadir of modern race relations in America, I can’t help but think there are greater depths to which we’ll sink before all is said and done.
That said, one of the few positive developments is the rekindling of the debate regarding statues honoring Confederate soldiers—and, by extension, Confederate values—in public spaces. For decades, local governments have willfully turned a deaf ear to the legitimate complaints of aggrieved citizens, most of them people of color: monuments honoring those who fought to preserve an oppressive, racist society have no place in the public square, and their continued existence serves as an implicit endorsement of the systemic racial injustice that still pervades American culture.
For what it’s worth, I believe these shrines to America’s darkest days should be torn down. There is a difference between “erasing history” and placing history in the proper context. You can acknowledge the past without glorifying it.
But where does it stop?
According to recent reports, the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis will no longer be screening Gone With The Wind as part of their annual Summer Movie Series. The decision to remove the 1939 classic came on the heels of a social media campaign blasting the Orpheum for screening a film that allegedly glorifies the antebellum South. Those demanding that Gone With The Wind be relegated to the dustbin of history may have the purest of intentions, but their zeal is misguided.
Saying Gone With The Wind glorifies slavery is akin to saying Saving Private Ryan glorifies war; to put it mildly, all the white characters in the film have a pretty rough go of things. The ones who don’t die are either imprisoned or lose family members one by one. Yes, the film hews to harmful racial stereotypes, but Birth of a Nation, it is not.
Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, this film is not considered a classic because it’s about the antebellum South; it’s a compelling story. Some stories take place in distasteful universes, but that doesn’t mean those stories are not worth telling. In fact, it is precisely for that reason that these stories are more worthwhile. It’s important to be uncomfortable sometimes.
Not every movie can be The Help, where the white character has a come-to-Jesus, we’re-not-so-different-after-all movement and everybody joins hands at the end. (In fact, The Help is entirely problematic in its own way, attempting to throw a #notallwhites lens on the Civil Rights Movement, as though the black experience in the 1960s is only valid or noteworthy if a white person took an interest.)
Gone With The Wind is also not compulsory viewing for the citizens of Memphis. The film isn’t being shown on a giant outdoor screen where people have no choice but to watch it; they are free to view or not view the movie as they see fit. Furthermore, it is also dangerous to assume that anyone who wants to watch the film is yearning for a return to the antebellum South, or is so intellectually vacant that viewing a film from almost 80 years ago would somehow inform their opinions today.
To be clear, the Orpheum Theatre isn’t only running a nonstop screening of Gone With The Wind as part of their Summer Movie Series. Other films include Coming To America, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grease, The Maltese Falcon, and Dirty Harry. Coming To America is misogynist and promotes harmful stereotypes about immigrants. Dirty Harry is an ode to a cop acting as judge, jury, and executioner.
My point is, you could make an argument that any number of the films screened by the Orpheum are unfit for public consumption. But the argument is disingenuous—it willfully ignores any context surrounding the film itself and focuses only on the distasteful aspects of the film.
America is a historically racist nation. Yes, it is uncomfortable to see black actors and actresses in roles that perpetuate the myth of the bumbling, plain-spoken Negro. That’s why Gone With The Wind is so important: it offers a snapshot of the American South before, during, and after the Civil War. Not only that, but it reminds us that the end of the Civil War was not the end of racial inequality in America.
This includes Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy and was the first black Academy Award winner. McDaniel would have been unable to attend the ceremony without the intervention of producer David O. Selznick, as the ceremony was held at the segregated Coconut Grove nightclub in The Ambassador Hotel. Despite Selznick’s intervention, McDaniel was still forced to sit at her own segregated table during the ceremony, away from her co-stars Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.
Seventy-five years after the end of the Civil War, Hattie McDaniel was still regarded as inferior to her white colleagues. And a little more than seventy-five years after that injustice, a large swath of Americans still view black Americans in the same light. The damage inflicted upon black Americans began nearly 400 years ago, and it has yet to be undone. Disavowing a film is not progress; it is an empty gesture.
There are more important things to do with our energy.