The same night that Tiki torch–bearing white supremacists rallied around a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, 1,500 moviegoers at Memphis, Tennessee’s Orpheum Theatre came out for another nostalgic vision of the old South—Gone With the Wind, still arguably the most popular film of all time. In the coming weeks, the theater found itself at the center of a national controversy, after it announced that it would not be showing Gone With the Wind next summer, ending an annual tradition it had upheld for most of the past 34 years.
Yet prior to the Unite the Right rally, and the violence that led to the death of Heather Heyer, the president and CEO of the theater, Brett Batterson, had already decided to leave the film off the upcoming 2018 program. According to the Memphis daily newspaper the Commercial Appeal, he had determined, after consulting with a couple of local university professors, that Gone With the Wind was no longer a good fit in the lineup given the current political climate. In a press statement, the theater said, “As an organization whose stated mission is to ‘entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,’ the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population.”
Batterson’s decision was criticized by everyone from Fox News commentators, who called it “cultural cleansing” and the work of “culture jihadists,” to French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, who described it as an “alarming suppression of artistic expression.” The controversy boiled over and out onto the opinion pages, reigniting the decades-old critical debate over what we should do with a film like Gone With the Wind—one that perpetuates the whitewashed myth of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, indulges the racial stereotype of the “mammy,” and seductively depicts the antebellum South as a land of genteel charm and jolly, complacent servants. (Most of the essays agreed that yes, the movie is indefensibly racist, but censorship is bad and our sins must be preserved to remind us not to commit them again.)
But no less interesting than what should happen to the movie is what is happening to it. How are cinemas, TV networks, and classrooms rethinking how they present this historical epic and all-time box office king? And could it go the way of Hollywood’s original historical epic and first megablockbuster, 1915’s The Birth of a Nation, leaving it shown very rarely and almost exclusively in academic settings?
To find out, I talked to theater managers, academics, television programmers, and fans. The answers I received were mixed, not least because Gone With the Wind is still big business: Despite its four-hour running time, it’s still rereleased every 10 years or so into hundreds of theaters, most recently in 2014 for the 75th anniversary. While ticket sales data for the 2014 reissue don’t appear to be online, Box Office Mojo says that the 1989 release made $2.4 million, while the 1998 release earned more than $6 million. And this doesn’t even begin to account for the many theaters across the country and around the world that, like the Orpheum, have screened the film either frequently or occasionally for decades, for both casual fans and die-hard “Windies,” the Gone With the Wind equivalent of Beliebers.
Given the backlash that the Orpheum received for its decision, it was no surprise that many theaters weren’t eager to give interviews. (The Orpheum itself, for one, didn’t respond to my multiple emails and phone calls.) A few other venues that have screened the film recently, such as the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, declined to speak with me directly. Meanwhile, the KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which in September pulled the film from its season, replacing it with Ben-Hur, responded to my interview request with a statement saying Gone With the Wind had been selected “nearly a year ago” for the venue’s 90th anniversary, “but due to recent national dialogue regarding Civil War–era memorials, a decision was made by the Cultural Services Department, which operates the theater, to choose another film.”
Others were more willing to talk. The Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville, for example, was eager to clear up confusion that had caused many to think it would no longer be showing the movie. When news outlets began reporting on the Orpheum Theatre’s decision with headlines such as “Tennessee Theater Cancels Annual ‘Gone With the Wind’ Screening After Complaints of Racial Insensitivity,” many, who misinterpreted the headlines and didn’t read the rest of the article, made angry calls to the Knoxville venue, with the Knoxville News Sentinel reporting that some canceled tickets in protest. Becky Hancock, executive director of the theater since 2013, informed me that the movie palace, which was built in the 1920s and now serves primarily as a live performance space, screens the film once “every two or three years.” The most recent time they screened it was in July, right before the events in Charlottesville, but she told me that even then ticket sales were “a little bit” lower than the previous time they showed it. In general, she suggested, the film’s popularity has dropped off in the past few years, though she can’t recall ever receiving complaints about the film’s racially insensitive nature. Still, despite the gradually dwindling box office, they have no plans to stop showing it.
Further north, Russ Collins, executive director and CEO of the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, told me it’s been four years since they’ve shown Gone With the Wind. Like Hancock, he’s observed a decline in the film’s popularity, from one of a handful of in-demand classics (alongside the likes of Casablanca) shown annually by venues in the 1980s and ’90s to one that has become more of a “sporadic exhibition piece.” And while he didn’t recall ever receiving negative customer feedback, he said that “in the 2000s, the more problematic nature of [it] was more in the consciousness of people that were booking films—us included.”
I asked each of them how they had presented the film in the past. Were there any educational elements offered, such as Q&As, to put the movie into its historical context? They said it was shown without comment. Collins added that he and his colleagues had more of that kind of conversation around The Birth of a Nation. He couldn’t remember the theater ever showing the Klan-glorifying movie there during his 35-year tenure but added via a follow-up email that he “believe[s] there was a University of Michigan-sponsored screening done here with warnings and disclaimers as to the movie’s content.”
That said, both Hancock and Collins agree that the culture has turned a corner and Gone With the Wind’s racist history needs to be confronted. When the Tennessee Theatre, a week after the violence in Charlottesville, showed Buster Keaton’s The General—in which Keaton’s character attempts to enlist in the Confederate army—the screening was preceded by an acknowledgment of the events from the live organ accompanist, who stated that the theater doesn’t condone the film’s depiction of the Confederacy. Hancock sees this as a model for what they might do going forward. “I think what I’m gonna ask of our audiences if we—when we—show Gone With the Wind again, is … what was [the depiction of slaves] saying not so much about the Civil War, but about the United States in 1939? And what was it saying about the proliferation of the Lost Cause myth?” In addition to educational speeches before the films, she suggested they could provide handouts offering up different perspectives. Collins felt similarly, saying that the film is “a Confederate monument, as it were—an aesthetic monument of the Confederate way of life.” Going forward, the Michigan Theater would likely present it as “part of some kind of program pointing out this kind of subtle and not-so-subtle racist messaging in films.”
These conversations about Gone With the Wind extend to the small screen. Gone With the Wind’s most prominent exhibitor, and one of America’s most passionate Windies, is Ted Turner, who has proudly shown the movie for years in both his cinemas and on his TV networks. The media mogul considers it his favorite movie, bought the rights to it in 1985, and for several years, beginning in 1987, showed it regularly at CNN Cinemas 6 in Atlanta, sometimes multiple times per day. It also served as the inaugural broadcast for two of Turner’s cable networks, TNT and Turner Classic Movies, in 1988 and 1994, respectively. (In what cannot be a coincidence, he also named one of his sons Rhett.)
While TNT may not show what its promos once proudly called “the greatest film of all time” as often as it used to, TCM still airs it often. I spoke with Charlie Tabesh, the senior vice president of programming for TCM, who has been with the cable network for 20 years. Tabesh said that while he respects the Orpheum’s move, “Our decision right now is to play [it].” For them to not play it, he said, it would take a “pretty extreme circumstance, and I don’t think we’re at that point.” In their efforts to engage with their viewers and learn about what films have made them uncomfortable, he says, he hasn’t heard many complaints about Gone With the Wind.
That doesn’t mean TCM won’t be more conscious of its presentation going forward. In the past, the channel’s signature introductions to the film haven’t always addressed the film’s problematic elements. When TCM aired the film in 2006 as part of a series on black images in mainstream Hollywood, aspects such as Hattie McDaniel’s controversial performance as Mammy, which made her the first black actor to win an Oscar, were placed in historical context. But if it was played to honor Clark Gable as TCM’s Star of the Month, for instance, such aspects probably wouldn’t be mentioned at all. Now, however, Tabesh feels as though the film’s fraught history could find its way into every future introduction, regardless of context. “I think we would be more likely to do that now than we would’ve 10-15 years ago,” he said.
In the classroom, it may be easier to present the film in historical context, but that doesn’t mean that screening it is without challenges. Thomas Doherty, professor of American studies at Brandeis University, has taught the movie off and on for 25 years, typically as part of classes around the Great Depression and race, with an emphasis on “how the film is a revisionist Jim Crow reading of the Civil War and its aftermath.” When he taught the class last spring, however, he noticed a stark shift in the nature of the class discussion: There was none. No one wanted to speak up. While students before had made “really engaged arguments on both sides,” this time they seemed “afraid to make any argument at all.” He thinks “students were afraid of saying something offensive. … Because if you say [Mammy’s] a stereotypical performance, you’re denigrating the empowering attributes of actress Hattie McDaniel, and if you say it’s an empowering performance, then you’re overlooking the stereotypical elements of the portrayal. So they were kind of frozen.
“It was the first time in a classroom where I felt fear in the room,” he continued, saying, “I felt the present atmosphere was really constraining the useful intellectual arguments you used to have in class,” though he added that it could have been only “an outlier.” He said he’s also had younger academics confess to him their reluctance to include the film on the syllabus out of fear of losing their jobs.
But even as the policing of speech on campus is making some professors wary of showing it, other professors may not see that as so great a loss. Prominent University of Southern California film professor Todd Boyd said he’s never felt the need to teach the film in his classes, and Collins, who previously taught film studies at Eastern Michigan University, agreed. “Gone With the Wind to me is not that important,” said Boyd. “I recognize that there are people who think it is … and I have repeatedly mentioned some of the racism in the film as it pertains to Hattie McDaniel. But in terms of screening it for a class, there’s never been a need—there are plenty of other ways to illustrate that point.”
The place where the movie is likely to be viewed with the least historical context is at home, on video, but the way it’s sold on home video is changing, too. When Warner Bros. decided to reissue the film on Blu-ray once again for its 75th anniversary, it commissioned a 26-minute documentary called Old South/New South with the intent of offering some perspective on how the film depicts the Civil War. Filmmaker Gary Leva, who had previously made short docs profiling director Victor Fleming and chronicling Windy fandom for the 70th-anniversary DVD, originally pitched a travelogue. He told me that his question going in was “Does the genteel Southern atmosphere seen in [the film] from that era survive in any way?” But shortly after he began making the film, he realized, “I didn’t know much about Southern history—even though I’m from Texas. What it became was a journey of discovery,” he said, as he recognized “the fact that that genteel atmosphere never existed.”
Leva interviews prominent Southerners who tie the film explicitly to Southern denialism in the form of proud displays of the Confederate flag and Confederate monuments. Even though the documentary makes criticisms of Gone With the Wind that many others, particularly black people, have been making since the movie first premiered, it’s still somewhat surprising that Warner Bros. would agree to include something so critical of their own product. (According to Leva, they didn’t have any problem with the content once he turned in the finished film.) And if Leva, himself from Texas, found these statements eye opening while making the doc, surely many fans of the film who watch the featurette must have a similar experience.
With more and more people becoming aware of the movie’s most offensive elements, could it ever go the way of The Birth of a Nation or that other iconic example of searing, dangerous agitprop from across the ocean, Triumph of the Will? The most recent time TCM played The Birth of a Nation, Tabesh told me, was in 2013 as part of a series supplementing the 15-part documentary The Story of Film, and he “[doesn’t] think he would do it again.” For the film’s 100th anniversary in 2015, the channel consciously “didn’t play it to honor or celebrate it in any way.” German law, meanwhile, prohibits Triumph of the Will from being shown except under particular circumstances with an expert present to provide context. It’s been easy to cast those films aside entirely—they wear their white supremacy on their sleeve.
But it’s hard to imagine the same thing happening to Gone With the Wind. To many, its cinematic innovations and the fascinating heroine at its center can still be appreciated even while conscious of its disgraceful aspects. My friend and Black Girl Nerds contributor Jacqueline Coley counts herself as a fan, having grown up watching it with her mother, and they even saw it on the big screen when it was rereleased in 1998. She recognizes its drawbacks but considers the film “progressive” for its time, citing, for instance, producer David O. Selznick’s decision to leave out the word nigger from the script, at the urging of the NAACP, members of the black press, and censors.
Still, when I asked her whether she would return to the theater to catch a screening of it today, her response echoed many of the arguments that have been made for putting Confederate statues on display in museums rather than in public spaces. “It’s still a movie I’d watch if it’s on cable, but paying to go see it—no. I think now that I’ve grown up and become a critic, I like to look at it more from an academic standpoint. If I was writing a review on this film today, I would rip it apart.”
Sometimes the relative subtlety of Gone With the Wind’s politics, when compared to The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, can make it even more dangerous. Just as the Civil War “wasn’t about” slavery according to its revisionist history, neither is Gone With the Wind—at least according to the movie itself, in which black characters are never referred to as slaves and just seem happy to be there. The film’s powers of persuasion are more slippery: In 1988, for instance, a teenage first-time viewer from Boston, during the intermission at one of Ted Turner’s infamous screenings, said, “I feel bad for the Southerners. Before, I just assumed that the Northerners were in there doing what was right, fighting for truth and justice.”
Would a pre-screening speech, or a handout, or an accompanying documentary, have been enough to break the spell the film cast on this teenager? It will take a lot more than educational supplements and disclaimers to undo almost 80 years’ worth of damage done by America’s favorite self-portrait, but it’s a start—a sign that more and more people are beginning to finally give a damn.