Recasting: Gone with the Wind in American Culture

By Darden Asbury Pyron | Go to book overview

Winds of Change: Gone with the Wind and Racism as a National Issue

Malcolm X grew into manhood with a vivid memory of Gone with the Wind. As a teenager, he went to see the film in his Michigan hometown: "I remember one thing that marred that time for me. . . . I was the only Negro in the theatre, and when Butterfly McQueen went into her act, I felt like crawling under the rug."1 An December 1939, a few weeks earlier, 300,000 Atlantans, most of them white, had filled the streets for the premiere that simultaneously celebrated the release of the movie and a revival of Southern consciousness. Wherever Margaret Mitchell's 1,000-page novel was sold and wherever the movie version played, the story was the same: audiences were divided along racial lines.

But to see Gone with the Wind only as the center of a racial debate is to miss much. In addition to its obvious socially divisive ingredients of sectionalism and racism, it contained elements calculated by its makers, Mitchell and producer David O. Selznick, to temper and modulate high-running racial feelings. Indeed, their haft-formed liberal assumptions that contributed to the political texture of the film anticipated the more sharply focused racial liberalism of World War II.

In this sense, Gone with the Wind signaled a revival of an old abolitionist quest to make racism a national issue. By standing astride a moment between the Great Depression and a world war during which American social attitudes changed, in part prodded by forces released by wartime propaganda calling for national unity across ethnic lines, the movie provided a punctuation mark between the last era in which racial matters were considered to be purely local and a new era when they resumed a role in national public policy.

Moreover, this halting step toward more liberal racial politics, made urgent by the coming of war, was not unnoticed by Afro. Americans. As the need to solve racial problems emerged, black critics debated the merits of the novel, made hopeful gestures to change the movie during production, and scrutinized the product as a reflection of changing American social attitudes. Seiznick, for his part, excised all references to the Ku Klux Klan, renegade Negroes, and other Southern legends, as though weeding out prickly points in order to allow the movie to speak, however softly, to a generation of Americans who faced a tense and unstable racial future.2

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