As with any film, GWTW too has had its detractors over the last eighty years. Not just people who felt, e.g., the film should’ve been trimmed down or that the second half is weaker than the first, but people who hate(d) it altogether.
And given the time and place in which it’s set, coupled with Margaret Mitchell’s own biases as a product of that setting, one can kind of guess exactly what most of that criticism revolves around.
Many African–Americans, both then and now, haven’t had the most positive views on GWTW. They felt the slave characters were too negatively stereotyped instead of complex, three-dimensional people, along with depicting the Old South through rose-colored glasses. Additionally, there’s a strong element (even stronger in the book) of the most sympathetic slaves being those who accept subservience and don’t leave their former owners after being emancipated.
Walter Francis White, executive director of the NAACP, put Hattie McDaniel on blast after she accepted the Academy for Best Supporting Actress, calling her an Uncle Tom. In turn, she fired back by famously saying she’d rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week actually being one.
Hattie also questioned his qualifications to speak on any subject regarding African–Americans, seeing as he was an octoroon (one-eighth Black) with very light features. He had far more European than African ancestry, and easily passed for white.
While there were demonstrations against the film in some cities, and heated criticism which included calling GWTW “a weapon of terror against Black America,” other African–Americans were very happy Hattie won that award. They hoped it might lead to increased cinematic recognition for their people, more chances to play important, multi-faceted roles.
Sadly, it would be twenty-four years until another African–American won an Academy, Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field in 1964.
Though the film significantly tones down the racism of the book (which I’ll go into more detail about in a later post), it regardless still retains the depiction of an Old South that wasn’t reality for the vast majority of people, either white or Black. As I mentioned in my BOAN posts in 2015, the now-debunked Dunning School of Reconstruction was very much in vogue during this era.
The Dunning School wasn’t just a POV sympathetic to the Southern side of Reconstruction, but falsified history akin to denying the Shoah or Armenian Genocide. It cast white Southerners as saintly victims, while the only good slaves were happy to be slaves and loved their masters. Anyone of either race who opposed slavery and wanted equal rights for African–Americans was an enemy.
While there were obvious failures during Reconstruction, legit corruption, and a dearth of the reconciliatory spirit Pres. Lincoln hoped for, the Dunning School took true instances of bad behavior way out of context and acted like that constantly happened in every single instance. It was also loaded with ugly racism, esp. in depicting the KKK as knights in shining armor, even as they lynched African–Americans.
While there certainly were people who treated their slaves very well and had mutually harmonious relationships with them, there were others who abused their slaves horrifically, à la Simon Legree. Between those two extremes were a wide variety of experiences.
In 1994, the Atlanta Historical Society hosted an exhibit entitled “Disputed Territories: Gone with the Wind and Southern Myths,” including an exploration of the question “How True to Life Were the Slaves in GWTW?” Through documentary evidence, they showed Margaret Mitchell’s depiction of “happy darkies” was a myth, just as false as the claim all slaveowners were Simon Legrees.
It obviously doesn’t make slavery morally right, but it shows, as with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s historically and intellectually dishonest to pretend either extreme was the norm.
The racist material also raises difficult questions about whether we can really condemn someone for having strongly-held, long-established, very consistent views which, while now recognised as inaccurate, wrong, offensive, etc., were a matter-of-fact product of that time and place.
For example, many people find it hard to believe the Torah allows slavery when the Israelites just escaped slavery. But in Antiquity, slavery was a fact of life. No one could imagine a society without it, since there were no counterexamples. The best one could do was establish laws about treating slaves humanely and offering them freedom after a certain point.
By and large, we live what we know. Of course Margaret Mitchell had a very rose-colored view of the Old South and believed that was how most people lived, since she grew up hearing those stories and was from a very privileged family. Someone from a poor white family or descendant of former slaves would’ve written a much different novel!
Another sticking point with many is the suggested marital rape. Just as in the prelude to the rape in The Son of the Sheik, there’s absolutely no doubt as to what’s about to happen.
However, unlike Yasmin, Scarlett seems to be in euphoric afterglow in the next scene. In the book, it’s described as the most intense, powerful sexual act of Scarlett’s life, something she didn’t object to for long, and wasn’t forced into after the initial impetus. She wanted Rhett to take the initiative and have his way with her.
Also, in this era, rape was the only kind of sex a so-called “respectable” woman could fantasize about, since it was forced on her, not something she actively sought out. As awful as this sounds today, it was “just how things were.”
Bottom line: While everyone has a right to exercise free speech and judge things as we see fit (since personal reactions and feelings can never be policed), we also can’t divorce art from the cultural and historical context in which it was created. What was radical in 1920 may seem quaint or cringey today, but the big picture should matter most.