Gone with the Wind, Free Speech, and How We Should Handle Problematic Art

HBO begins a conversation that should've ended years ago with this film cloaked in its shame

Gone with the Wind Poster Artwork

Film critic J Hoberman was sitting at his desk in the offices of legendary defunct paper The Village Voice in the early ’90s when the phone rang. “I received a call from an assistant editor at Entertainment Weekly who thought it would be fun to publish an article on the 10 worst films of all time and was polling various critics. I told him that although it would take me a bit of time to compile a list, I could give him the worst film off the top of my head: Gone with the Wind. Addressing me as though I were a backward child, he explained that they were interested in the worst films, not the best ones. I assured him that I understood and asked that he call back in an hour to get my other nine films. Needless to say, I never heard from him again.”

The ways we talk about and manicure film history for public consumption in America aren’t dissimilar from the ways we choose to curate our own history as a people. History, as it’s retold in the mainstream, has long been like a thin pneumatic tube. When handed lopsided packages like … oh, the murder and imprisonment of the members of the Black Panther Party just as a random example, they’re put aside because the flow of pleasant information (the kind that keeps white people at the top of the food chain looking out for the unfortunate souls they try to “help”) must never be broken. When that Entertainment editor saw that Hoberman was about to blow up Gone with the Wind’s spot, they saw what everyone now sees thanks to the film’s sudden controversial appearance on the newly launched streaming platform HBO Max. That a film, divorced of context, can be a rather unpleasant conversation piece.

Whenever “we” have conversations about art that no longer reflects the dominant progressive value system, and that never reflected a sane value system, it can feel like holding up two walls at the same time. Yes, it’s lamentable that a text as thoroughly shot through with racist values was ever so popular no matter anyone’s point about its craft — a lot of truly despicable movies have great cinematography or wonderful Mel Gibson performances. No, taking it off a streaming platform isn’t censorship, especially considering that they put it back up with a video intro from Jacqueline Stewart. Just on the off chance someone watching it for the first time wonders why this film was so beloved that it became a capital ‘C’ Classic to begin with, it might be a good idea to provide the same background it would get in a museum, where it belongs.

I’ll give the exasperating asshole “intellectuals” who hold court on Twitter one thing: it becomes rather difficult to have a nuanced debate about something after the rushed release of a talking point. But now is also the very worst time to be having discussions about censorship because the ideology that’s currently in power in politics and in media frames every single instance of public criticism of racism as censorship. President Trump recently issued an executive order to “prevent online censorship” because Twitter fact-checked him one time after a decade of letting him say whatever xenophobic nonsense flitted into his dying grey matter. Free speech to conservatives means they get to say whatever they want, even if that means shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. So, when a younger generation discovers something like Gone with the Wind and wants to have a conversation in public about its values, conservatives cry “censorship.” On the one hand, putting a movie like Gone with the Wind where people can find it is not implicitly condoning its beliefs. On the other, taking it down or asking it be qualified isn’t censorship. It’s not hard to see why, if your only window on the world is streaming TV and social media, it’s easier to think that, but this is still just a routine flexing of muscles from one faceless player in the marketplace.

The trouble with this particular situation is that we’re having an argument about the supposed “free speech” surrounding an object that doesn’t fundamentally belong to anybody. Gone with the Wind may be tied up like an umbilical cord around the neck of white Southern culture, but that doesn’t make it anything more than a historical artifact, and it should be treated like that. Everyone who made Gone with the Wind is dead, though the rights belong to MGM, and they made millions of dollars over the course of the movie’s 81-year lifespan. If no one watched Gone with the Wind again, it wouldn’t matter because art is supposed to help explain the human condition and help humans navigate their lives, and no one needs the guidance it has to offer in this particular racist iteration — if they do, may I recommend Deadwood instead? It actually converses with the attitudes of the time in which it’s set.

Art is not meant to be prescriptive (I’m having flashbacks to the Twitter users who hilariously called Jojo Rabbit a “life-changing” experience), and though Armond White and the social media team at conservative Ponzi scheme Prager University seem to think having a discussion about a work’s racism is the same thing as erasing it from culture, they could just go buy the thing on DVD, where it’s been for 20 years, if they are so desperate to relive all 238 minutes of its musty grandeur. What the “facts don’t care about your feelings” crowd can’t seem to grasp is that free speech doesn’t interface with distribution. Having the freedom to watch something and demanding everyone be allowed to watch something are slightly different propositions.

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When I was 15, I dated a girl whose conservative father made the entire family gather round and watch one of those interminable jib-jab videos back to front because he thought it was funny. That’s the right-wing idea of free speech. We were always perfectly capable of watching Gone with the Wind, and if it were true that something has to be at your fingertips night and day in order that it be thought of as being protected by free speech, where’s the blu-ray of the uncut version of Ken Russell’s The Devils? Where’s the home video release of Michael Verhoeven’s anti-Vietnam movie o.k.? Surely, if we had to make sure that all viewpoints, all versions of history no matter how dubious and moth-eaten, are available at all times, why can’t we watch Maurice Hatton’s Praise Marx and Pass the Ammunition right now? Conservatives have never had to live without access to Gone with the Wind. Maybe they ought to try it.

Directed by something like 90 people (William Cameron Menzies and Val Lewton both contributed ideas), Gone with the Wind has been trotted out for roadshow re-releases, and there was hardly an Academy Awards ceremony or, for that matter, a parody of classic Hollywood without mention of it (Carol Burnett’s version is probably the best). It’s in the ground water of American culture because MGM made a fortune getting the hose down there. There’s a million-dollar industry that was dedicated to making sure you know the words “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Until recently, it was still shown in theaters as part of Turner Classic Movies-sponsored Fathom Events. It’s been in the top 10 of the American Film Industry’s best American movies list for over 20 years. Things get dicey when we try to quantify just how long a movie or any work of art is supposed to be treated as just an apolitical thing, some holy, blameless relic that only showcases history and is also itself a piece of history.

Remember the pneumatic tube? It’s gotten a lot larger lately, and it turns out people are more than willing to try and shove some oddly shaped packages into its maw. Gone with the Wind was never just itself — no work of art can be. It’s naive to assume anything, least of all a four-hour movie about slave-owning white people that’s set during the American Civil War, simply exists, and demanding it simply exist next to Lolita and Pat and Mike is similarly naive. Those movies aren’t the highest-grossing classics of all time and a national talking point, though they should also come with introductions because, as part of history, I don’t think it’s at all problematic to fit things into their proper context.

On TCM, movies always come with context in the form of their filmed introductions. On HBO, they’re just content. That’s why the free-speech argument never works in cases like this. At most, it was a decision for HBO, who first licensed the movie for broadcast in 1976, to renegotiate with MGM, then reach into their library and hit publish. They didn’t put the film up thinking about what it says; they did it because they thought people might want to watch it. And what does it say if people just want to watch a movie in which white southerners are the war heroes while black people are being literally lynched in California and nooses are being hung from trees in Brooklyn?

When HBO Max released their full streaming library, the name of the game was sheer staggering quantity. They were obviously trying to compete with The Criterion Channel as well as with other streaming services, but by digging into the archive without scrutinizing much beyond star power and name recognition, they dredged up some ghosts, too. And like it or not, putting Gone with the Wind on one of the most popular streaming platforms is a choice to say that “this narrative is both as worthy and as harmless as a Tracy/Hepburn romance. This is just another movie.” It’s not. It never was, and it certainly isn’t now that we’re re-litigating the Civil War every day on the streets of major cities across the country.

Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh, Hattie McDaniel,
Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind

So, what’s the solution? Well the introduction is obviously a good start, if a late one. Honestly, every movie made before 9/11 could stand one, and why not? Art scholarship is always a good thing; you can never be too informed. The solution would have been to do this work when we were learning about Mark Twain and Andrew Jackson in grade school, but American public education is a fundamentally white supremacist system, too. The reason we don’t do this kind of thing already is that fans of artists and works of art are stubborn when it comes time to investigate the bad influences of their favorites and one-time heroes. The entertainment news cycle is just one short-sighted millionaire fool pledging allegiance to bigotry and sexual assault after another these days, which means that we have a million discussions of cancel culture without figuring out what that means.

We can’t go one season without someone rich saying Woody Allen got a raw deal. J.K. Rowling’s been writing transphobic fiction for years, and her fans are still reluctant to penalize her for it because her books became their personalities — a very dangerous idea we’ve been falling for for decades. “Nobody’s safe anymore!” goes the chorus every time someone gets “cancelled.” Safe from what? Scrutiny? The disfavor of the market place people seem to hold so sacred? Heaven forfend. You’d think enemies of J.K. Rowling or Trump were going around hanging people with whose politics they disagreed. There is nothing the white right fears worse than the idea that someone might actually collect on the years of debt they’ve incurred while simultaneously getting rich off prison labor performed by black people, by selling the fear of black people, and by appropriating black culture.

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So, what do we do with problematic art and the problematic artists who create it? Thornier, but by no means impossible to sort out. I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you went through the political leanings, marriages, and rap sheets of every great artist from the first poets and writers until … I don’t know 1990 … you’ll often find much to despise about their personal lives. And yet Strauss remains a great composer, the hits of ’80s post-punk group The Smiths are works of unparalleled pop craftsmanship, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline is still an astonishing writer. In a New Yorker piece by Adelaide Docx, the legendary Philip Roth, one of the greatest Jewish writers to ever touch a typewriter, once confessed he worshiped Céline’s prose “…even if his anti-Semitism made him an abject, intolerable person. To read him, I have to suspend my Jewish conscience, but I do it, because anti-Semitism isn’t at the heart of his books.” Art is for the wounded, the soul in need of a map out of darkness. Celine’s words didn’t betray his hate, which make them dangerous, which is precisely why we have to be more careful about this history.

Artists are fallible and a goodly sum of them are and have long been sexists, anti-semites, racists, klansman, nazis, predators, and terfs. The written word can be reasoned with when a person cannot. Death on the Installment Plan can be reasoned with, Chinatown can be reasoned with, and Gone with the Wind can be reasoned with, if you had nothing better to do. To wit, it’s a white supremacist text with great costumes and a couple excellent performances that speaks to the longitude and latitude of Hollywood’s politics in 1939. They were making slow progress then like we are now. It wasn’t enough then, and it’s definitely not enough now. HBO Max could have tried to buy The Murder of Fred Hampton, Night Catches Us, or Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, but honestly then we’d be going through a corporation that thought nothing of putting Gone with the Wind next to entire seasons of Friends (speaking of white supremacist) to get access to media about black lives and the way the government has been systematically crippling any attempts for a black narrative to reach the mainstream.

There’s a reason critics and the studio that bankrolled it didn’t give Spike Lee’s Bamboozled the same benefit of the doubt they gave Sidney Lumet’s Network — the one was abstractly about media consumption, the other about white consumption and corruption of black images, and it ends with a montage of blackface in mainstream entertainment that’s deliberately nauseating. The compromise was white people would bury the criticism and keep their own images without overtly glorifying them. Incidentally, Bamboozled was produced by New Line Cinema, owned by Turner Broadcasting System, the T in TCM. Funny, huh?

The permission structure, the money, the way the worst corporations control the stories … the waters couldn’t be muddier. If you were curious why people are for police abolition instead of reform, remember that it’s always a theoretical advantage to simply destroy the entire superstructure and make new rules than to continuously renovate the same cramped room. Or, more melodramatically, if a grocer was poisoning the food he was selling, you’d put him out of business; you wouldn’t keep shopping and try to reason with him. If you’re still buying the poisoned food, why should he stop? We should have been building to this conversation for years, but no one expected a reckoning about private beliefs and behavior because everyone was expecting to get away with theirs. We don’t have to let them, anymore, which is the lesson I hope we’re all learning as people demand accountability from creators and corporations who stand up for a corrupt or bigoted value system. That yes, MGM and HBO have the right to put Gone with the Wind wherever they please, just as you have the right to cancel your subscription if you don’t agree with the presentation.

Gone with the Wind
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind

For years, the free speech of hateful objects has enjoyed the protection of money. If people weren’t always talking about Gone with the Wind as a classic, if they stopped watching it, surely it might fade, become the museum piece it’s supposed to be. In order for that to be true, you’d have to trust that it not being on every streaming service wouldn’t reduce its watching numbers, wouldn’t bring people to start criticizing it as seriously as Hoberman was trying to all those years ago. It would have to fly in that fabled marketplace of ideas, and frankly, I don’t like its odds.

Conservatives have been hiding behind the history of a war their ancestors lost since the minute it ended because in truth, for all intents and purposes, they won. If the confederacy didn’t win the war, why are its police forces out here still killing black people in the street? Why does being a member of the Ku Klux Klan not preclude your inclusion on the police force? Why are so many white people personally offended by the idea of the Black Lives Matter organization? Why does a site like Rebeller, named for the confederacy, get beyond the planning stage? Why does a walking corpse like Dennis Prager think it’s a problem that HBO won’t air a glowing piece of confederate propaganda like Gone with the Wind?

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Why are we still talking about Gone with the Wind at all? It’s not because it’s one of the best American films of all time, nor even because it’s the worst. We choose what conversations to have about a work of art. It’s time to make better decisions because I don’t know how many more news cycles about this I can stand. It’s time for us to leave history in the past before we relive it, because we’ve been doing it as long as I’ve been alive and I’m sick to death of the Civil War. Whatever the white supremacy of this age tells us, the confederacy are still down in the history books as losers. I’d like us to remind them of that, and slapping a watermark that says “racist” on Gone with the Wind is as good a measure as any.


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