Editorial: Even in controversy, films like 'Gone With the Wind' prompt us to talk about racism

  • Hattie McDaniel, left, receives the Academy Award for the best performance by an actress in a supporting role in 1939 for "Gone With the Wind."

    Hattie McDaniel, left, receives the Academy Award for the best performance by an actress in a supporting role in 1939 for "Gone With the Wind." Associated Press, 1940

 
Daily Herald Editorial Board
Posted6/17/2020 1:00 AM

In the vital national debate over racism, attention has turned once again to a film epic that generations have loved -- or hated.

HBO Max announced last week that it was temporarily removing "Gone With the Wind" from its offerings. It will return with an introduction by Jacqueline Stewart that addresses the 1939 film's controversial depiction of slavery and the Civil War.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Stewart, who is African American, is a professor in the Department of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Chicago. In a CNN.com opinion piece about "Gone With the Wind," Stewart had this to say about her role for HBO Max:

"For me, this is an opportunity to think about what classic films can teach us," she wrote. "Right now, people are turning to movies for racial re-education, and the top-selling books on Amazon are about anti-racism and racial inequality. If people are really doing their homework, we may be poised to have our most informed, honest and productive national conversations yet about black lives on screen and off."

We see that thirst for understanding as well. And we share Stewart's belief that films can play a part in sparking and advancing those national conversations.

Indeed, Spike Lee's latest film "Da 5 Bloods" debuted on Netflix this weekend to strong reviews. It's an incredibly timely tale of aging black war veterans returning to Vietnam.

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"Just Mercy," a fact-based drama about a black man on death row for a murder he did not commit, is streaming for free all month -- and should be required viewing for anyone who still has trouble understanding why protests have erupted in the wake of George Floyd's death.

Art, you often hear, has the power to heal. But it also has the power to wound. Over the years, Hollywood at times has been harsh in its treatment of minorities, and many films -- including "Gone With the Wind" -- include scenes that are cringeworthy when viewed today.

David O. Selznick's epic tale of strong-willed Scarlett O'Hara, based on Margaret Mitchell's novel, won eight competitive and two honorary Oscars. Yet opposition was there from the start for the way it portrayed slaves and romanticized the South.

And when Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Academy Award for her role in "Gone With the Wind," she had to get special permission to attend since the ceremony was held at a hotel that banned blacks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Sadly, 80 years later, actors of color still struggle for recognition.

A few years ago, in an Associated Press article about the 75th anniversary of "Gone With the Wind," African American actress Kerry Washington contrasted that film with 2012's "Django," which ends with a plantation in flames. Washington, one of the stars of that Oscar-nominated film, however, acknowledged "Gone With the Wind" as a film that "has a really important place in the history of filmmaking, and in the history of African-Americans at the Oscars, in the history of messaging and how we portray history."

"All of that," she added, "is worth talking about."

She's right. And today -- not Scarlett's tomorrow -- is the time to start.

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