Well, fiddledeedee, as Scarlett O’Hara might exclaim: Gone With the Wind, the epic film of love and war set against the backdrop of a doomed Southern slavocracy, is turning 75, with special screenings in movie theaters around the nation and an airing on TV, too.
While black film buffs and thrill seekers will be in these audiences, that was not the case when the blockbuster saga premiered at Atlanta‘s Loew’s Grand on Dec. 15, 1939, with Depression-era patrons paying a whopping $10 for tickets.
In that New South that had replaced the antebellum South, there were no seats for black moviegoers. “Negro reaction to Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind will have to wait until the film comes North,” the Pittsburgh Courier’s Atlanta correspondent reported in the Dec. 23, 1939, edition.
For the GWTW premiere, Atlanta was a bastion of Old South pageantry, with 42 choristers from the oldest black church there, Big Bethel AME, dressed in “the garb of the old South,” according to the Baltimore Afro, to entertain the audience with Negro spirituals.
The film that went on to win 10 Oscars—including the first for a black performer—and that the American Film Institute considers one of the best films ever made, created nearly as much havoc in the equivalent of black Twitter—the black press—as General William T. Sherman’s march through Atlanta during the Civil War.
It was 1939, when millions of despairing people were unemployed and living on some form of public assistance during the Great Depression. Black activists were crusading for a federal anti-lynching bill. Europe was combating Nazis and fascists while America dithered over whether to intervene. And Hollywood was promoting the lost cause in a war that had claimed 750,000 lives and brought about the legal abolition of slavery.
The Afro’s columnist Ralph Matthews warned Hollywood that it was on dangerous ground with GWTW: “This is more than a racial question; it is a matter of grave national concern, and the white guardians of the Ship of State should appreciate the danger. With half the world on fire with national and racial hatreds, this is no time to reopen old sores at home.”
Black folks picketed from coast to coast. Some unions urged boycotts. In Chicago, the Defender called for “a mass protest” and in an editorial observed: “Gone With the Wind is propaganda, pure propaganda, crude propaganda. It is anti-Negro propaganda of the most vicious character. It is un-American propaganda. It is subversive.” In Philadelphia the president of the National Baptist Convention Inc. condemned the film as a “disgrace.” Across the pond, the Defender’s London correspondent reported, “Africans, West Indians, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Ceylonese, Burmese and other colonials” boycotted the film and registered their objections in Parliament.
Strangely, Roy Wilkins, the future NAACP chief, advised everyone to chill. In the Amsterdam News, Wilkins wrote: “It is my pleasure to report to my readers that in the lengthy and long-advertised film, Gone With the Wind, there is very little (almost nothing) over which the dark brothers and sisters can work up a good ‘mad.’ The authors of the film story have been exceptionally careful to avoid the dialogue in the Mitchell novel which, if transferred to the screen, would have been inflammable material.”
Not long before the first announcement of plans to turn Mitchell’s best-seller into a movie, the Los Angeles Sentinel in a page 1 editorial predicted a disaster. “This kind of a picture of the Old South is false, and worse than that, it is a libel on the entire Negro people,” the editors wrote on Jan. 28, 1937, while adding presciently that “our professional Hollywood hangers-on will be so blinded by the fact that a few Negroes will get jobs playing Uncle Tom and Aunt Dinah that they will think of nothing but praise for the studio that produces the film and the director that hires these actors to help perpetrate these lies in celluloid.”
In the months before roles were even filled, black newspapers were abuzz with speculation about who would win the plum roles, especially that of Scarlett’s faithful Mammy. Would it be Louise Beavers, best known then for her breakthrough role as the co-lead in the 1934 tearjerker Imitation of Life? Or would it be Lizzie McDuffie, an amateur thespian who found herself at the top of the social heap as a personal maid to the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt? Both were apparently hired at various stages of the production but were ultimately replaced by Hattie McDaniel, who went on to become the first black Academy Award winner as best supporting actress in 1940.
Amid the speculation about what the Courier referred to as “its financial effect upon the colored colony” of Los Angeles, a strong current of wariness and skepticism presaged what transpired decades later with Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave: How would Hollywood treat the black characters? Would the film spew despised words like “nigger” and “darky” so liberally used in the novel? The California Eagle’s Earl J. Morris castigated black actors who auditioned for parts by reading scripts containing such words and urged readers to write to David O. Selznick, the producer, and to Will Hays, the movie industry’s chief censor.
GWTW inspired a new sophistication in film criticism among writers like William L. Patterson in the Defender (“Gone With the Wind is a weapon of terror against black America. It is a weapon of lies and misrepresentations calculated to turn white America away from the democratic struggle and against Negroes”); Ben Davis in the Cleveland Call and Post (“The picture openly refers to the Negroes as ‘simple-minded darkies,’ resurrecting all the racial inferiority theories which science has discarded, and which Hitler and his fellow imperialists have picked up against the Jews and other minorities”); and Dan Burley in the Amsterdam News (“The David O. Selznick production of Gone With the Wind, representing an investment of $3,000,000, is the most expensive attempt to date to show the too rapidly progressing Negro his ‘proper place’”).
To the dismay of editorialists and reviewers, black people flocked to GWTW when it reached theaters near them, like the Carver in Norfolk, Va., and the Liberty in Bedford, Va.; the Lincoln in Washington, D.C.; the Harlem in Baltimore; and the Victoria in New York City’s Harlem. Some columnists praised the film’s production values and performances. Just about everyone loved McDaniel, about whose performance Donald Bogle, the film historian, has written, “McDaniel’s Mammy becomes an all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing commentator and observer. She remarks. She annotates. She makes asides. She always opinionizes.”
With the passage of time and a different appreciation of the slavery era, as evidenced by 12 Years a Slave winning the Oscar for best picture this year, has GWTW’s time gone with the wind? Trey Ellis, the novelist and screenwriter, thinks so. He puts it in a category with Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliantly rendered propaganda films for Hitler’s Third Reich: “It is in the service of something very pernicious.”
Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic, thought about that a few years ago as she watched the movie on TV. “As constructed entertainment, it kept holding me—the drive of the action, the characters, the melodrama. I kept watching it,” she told The Root. “At the same time, of course, I was snarling and growling and rolling my eyes in disgust moment after moment and also feeling, ‘God, it is very scary, the power of entertainment or artistic conventions to pull you in despite all your intellectual and emotional abhorrence.’”
To anyone planning to watch GWTW now, she offers this advice: “Watch it well armed with political, social and race history, and approach it as real critics of how film manipulates, how it can turn even your own impulses and instincts against you.”
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, has worked for the New York Times, the New York Daily News and the Washington Post. She is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication.