Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the US, Black Lives Matter protests have broken out in several countries, sparking off a renewed debate on racism in everyday life, including the portrayal of black people in popular culture.
This week, the online streaming service provider HBO Max announced it had temporarily removed from its collection the 1939 movie ‘Gone with the Wind’, over what it described were “racist depictions”.
In a statement, an HBO Max spokesperson said, “’Gone With the Wind’ is a product of its time and depicts some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that have, unfortunately, been commonplace in American society… These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible.”
What is the ‘Gone with the Wind’ about?
Based on a 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, ‘Gone with the Wind’ tells the story of Scarlett O’Hara, the enterprising daughter of a plantation owner in the Southern US. Set during the American Civil War (1861-65), it follows O’Hara’s romance with Rhett Butler, sometimes lapsed, sometimes born-again ‘Southern gentleman’.
The film, released in 1939, won a slew of honours at the 12th Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Among its 9 Oscars included Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to win the award. McDaniel played the role of Mammy, a slave close to O’Hara.
The film propelled Vivien Leigh (who played O’Hara), and Clark Gable (as Rhett Butler) to lifelong stardom.
‘Gone with the Wind’ is the highest-grossing film in history (adjusted for inflation), and has been re-released on several occasions over the decades. In 1989, the film was selected for preservation at the USA’s National Film Registry.
Why is the film problematic?
This is not the first time the film has stirred debate. For several years, commentators have denounced the film for its rosy depiction of slavery before the Civil War, while downplaying its horrors. Some cinema halls in the US have already removed the film from their rotations in recent times.
Critics have lambasted the film for portraying slaves as happy and content while being loyal to their owners, thus obscuring the brutal conditions in which enslaved people lived, and for painting black people as naive and simple-minded. The film is also attacked for perpetuating Lost Cause myths propounded by white supremacists.
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With soaring racial tensions following the death of George Floyd, the film again became an important point of discussion about race. In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times on Monday, Oscar-winning filmmaker John Ridley described ‘Gone with the Wind’ as “a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color,” and appealed to HBO Max to remove the film. The film was taken down the following day.
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