It’s Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
It’s the 125th anniversary of the birth of Hattie McDaniel.
She was the first African American to win an Academy Award, the best supporting actress for “Gone with the Wind.”
McDaniel played Scarlett O’Hara’s maid in the movie. Indeed, her movie career, which lasted until she died at age 59 in 1952, was predominantly filled with maid roles. Because black women were pretty much restricted to subservient roles – subservient except to the black men who were portrayed as too weak to stand up to even them.
Even in the 1940s, McDaniel faced some pushback from other African Americans who thought she perpetuated negative stereotypes. In that way, she couldn’t win – criticized by black people on one side and not allowed to attend the movie’s premiere in Atlanta because of Jim Crow.
But, after her death, McDaniel’s reputation improved. When Mo’Nique won the best supporting actress Oscar for “Precious” in 2010, she praised McDaniel for putting up with Hollywood’s racism so that other actresses could be free of it.
It’s funny how history works.
I think it’s a coincidence that McDaniel’s birthday is when HBOMax – the latest streaming TV service you didn’t know you needed – announced it’s pulling “Gone with the Wind” temporarily.
The service said it will bring back the film once it’s put some kind of “discussion of historical context” in or around it.
This has been a surprisingly big year for “Gone with the Wind” news.
You’ll remember that at one of his last rallies before stopping them due to the COVID pandemic he said was a hoax, Trump lamented the best picture Oscar going to “Parasite.” And he wondered why they don’t make movies like “GWTW” any more.
Just an aside, my guess is that Trump is one of those assholes who talks during a movie.
Anyway, I believe the first time I saw “Gone with the Wind” was in college. I had heard about it all through childhood – it was the seminal movie event of my parents’ generation and, until “The Sound of Music” came around in the 1960s, was the biggest grossing film of all time.
I remember being unimpressed.
Movie buffs would say that “Gone with the Wind” was the state of the art of movies in 1939, incorporating CGI-type effects without the benefit of the C. The burning of Atlanta – with Rhett rescuing Scarlett, Melanie and Prissy as the fires rage – is considered the Death Star destruction of its time.
OK, but the story sucks.
It sucked even before our current reawakening of racial tension that led to HBOMax’s decision.
Unless your sense of history is that the wrong side won the Civil War, this movie asks you to sympathize with the biggest collection of losers ever.
Scarlett is a spoiled brat. Ashley is a mindless dolt who gives himself to this supposedly noble cause. Melanie is a dope who’s always letting Scarlett get off the hook with her lecherous approaches toward her husband.
And Rhett would be a total jerk – he rapes his wife and exploits the side he’s supposedly on for financial gain – if it weren’t for the fact that he’s played by Clark Gable.
Then there’s the black characters. I’m sympathize with Hattie McDonald, Eddie Anderson and the rest, but it’s hard to watch this and accept the idea that these characters are content with life in bondage. Especially to the people I mention above.
But, I have to say, I long accepted the idea that this was considered a classic film. In the American Film Institute’s initial ranking of the top 100 films of all time, it came in fourth – only behind “Citizen Kane,” “Casablanca” and “The Godfather.”
The re-ranking in 2007 put it sixth, raising “Raging Bull” and “Singin’ in the Rain” above it.
So a couple of things happened after that.
When I wonder why I raised two kids who are embarked on show business careers, I think back to the Dad Film Festival – my attempt to show my youngsters what real movies were after being forced to watch “The Doug Movie” and other wastes of my time.
So I showed them movies perceived as classics. Some of them are – “Singin’ in the Rain” remains my son’s favorite movie of all time.
Then there’s “Gone with the Wind.”
They were bored. Not a lot really happens by today’s standards. It’s a freakin’ long movie, almost four hours with the intermission – and they wondered what was up with that.
The other thing that bothered them was the fact that this story is told from the point of view of the Confederate losers I mentioned above. Who cares what happens to them? They were fighting to keep people enslaved and got exactly what they deserved.
It’s a disorienting film for your kids if they’ve been raised to think the good guys won the Civil War.
One other thing to consider.
When I’ve taught my journalism class, I’ve given students an assignment to watch a movie that depicts the profession and critique it. Most of these are the standards: “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight,” “Citizen Kane” and “Network” are among them.
One movie I considered was “His Girl Friday,” the adaptation of “The Front Page” that featured Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. It’s considered a classic screwball comedy of the 1940s and a depiction of old-time newsrooms.
So I watched it. It certainly has a lot of virtues.
It also is chockablock with racism. Mercifully, it doesn’t use the n word, but any other slur you can think of shows up.
And it’s not even as if it’s essential to the plot – as if the story is even about black people. It’s just casually dropped in there for what I imagine the writers thought was an easy laugh.
I could not imagine any of my students – especially, any of my African American students – considering this movie anything but insulting. What serious discussion could I have about what the movie tells us about journalism when unseen African Americans are so disregarded?
Obviously, this is a time of reflection about our multiracial society.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with the preponderance of African American victims – should have pushed us toward it. The murder of George Floyd did.
One of the things to think about is what is art.
There are people bothered by HBOMax’s decision to pull the film because of “GWTW’s” vaunted status.
But do black people see art when they see the movie?
Or do they, as Malcolm X said about the movie, feel “like crawling under the rug”?
At the very least, HBOMax is right to frame this movie in some sort of context.
Because there’s a reason Trump sees this as the kind of movie Hollywood should be making – and it’s not because the cinematography stands out in the burning of Atlanta scene.
As far as I’m concerned, keeping “Gone with the Wind” off HBOMax might be a good reason to subscribe.