Last year's bracing, brilliant BlacKkKlansman — a film that, in a just world, would have walked away with the Best Picture trophy earlier this month — begins (somewhat surprisingly) not with new footage, but with footage from one of the oldest and most beloved films in American cinema history.
In Spike Lee's film, Southern belle Scarlett O'Hara wanders through rows of dead Confederate soldiers, as grandiose music swells before revealing a tattered, damaged, but triumphant Confederate flag waving in the breeze. It was as loaded an image in the 1930s as it is now — a suggestion that, though they suffered a terrible defeat, the spirit of the Confederacy lives on, and that's something to celebrate. In 2019, of course, it has taken on an entirely new meaning — one a lot more troubling.
That film was Gone with the Wind, and its use as the very first images we see in BlacKkKlansman is profoundly fitting for a film whose primary function is to interrogate the position of, and narratives around, black people in America on the big screen, specifically in Hollywood. There is no bigger film than Gone with the Wind — and likely, there never will be. Adjusted for inflation, the film is still the most successful in cinema history, a gigantic, sweeping behemoth of a film that pits a decades-long romantic entanglement against the misty-eyed backdrop of the American Civil War.
It is also, undoubtedly, a deeply problematic film, in the way it romanticises the Confederacy and the function of slave-owning society as a noble way of life long since lost — to say nothing of the black characters that operate within the film.
Few films have saturated film history in the way this one has, and yet, I'll confess, it was one of those films I had always skipped, and watching it for the first time in 2019 is a fascinating exercise in filling the gaps of pop cultural memory I'd long known about but never experienced. Gone with the Wind is a rollicking, consistently engaging tale. An astonishing level of craft went into making this film, which was masterminded by legendary film producer David O. Selznick and adapted from the book by Margaret Mitchell.
Its director, Victor Fleming, had to take time away from the production due to sheer exhaustion during the immense production schedule. And it's all there on the screen — from its genteel opening sequences of courtship and intrigue to the unfolding chaos of the fallout of the Civil War, the film incorporates then-cutting edge techniques to propel its many threads of romance and times long past into something positively mythic.
Then there are the performances — namely the iconic lead duo of Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, in the roles that would define their careers as Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler. Selznick famously delayed the production of the film for two years in order to secure Gable for the role of the dashing rogue Rhett — and it was worth the wait.
A kind of proto-Han Solo, Rhett is a character who finds his honour throughout the story of the film, but never loses his ever-so-slightly dangerous charm. Meanwhile, Leigh, who was plucked from a line-up of 1400 women for this, arguably the most pivotal role in the film, is frankly astonishing — not only perhaps the first great cinematic brat, but also the vital, thumping heart of Gone with the Wind, who is never simply reduced to a romantic foil — rather finding her inner strength and resilience as the film rumbles on.
Divorced from its modern context, Gone with the Wind is a stirring, swooning romantic epic — and so the question arises, to what extent are we able to sit back and simply enjoy it as a hell of a ride? Ultimately, such a thing is impossible — there is no way to watch something in a vacuum, to remove a thing from the time in which it is being watched.
It's something that BlacKkKlansman engages with directly in an astonishing sequence that describes the earlier, profoundly racist epic The Birth of a Nation and the role it had to play in real lynchings of black people at the time. There is too much that is troubling about Gone with the Wind. Most significantly, the film greatly recontextualises the "Old South" in general — by suggesting, in its opening title card no less, that the slave-owning South was where "Gallantry took its last bow".
The romanticism of the film is fatefully tied to the romantic notions of the South as a bunch of good ol' boys fighting for their freedom (and the right to withhold the freedom of others).
Meanwhile, though, Gone with the Wind features some of the first speaking roles for black actors in history — most significantly Hattie McDaniel as house servant Mammy, who became the first black woman to ever win an Oscar. Their characterisation leaves much to be desired. None of the slaves question their positions as slaves, nor do they seem hugely concerned with the notion of freedom, nor in support of the cause of emancipation, which was the core issue of the Civil War.
This driving crisis of the backdrop of Gone with the Wind barely merits a mention, and the slaves — though depicted as fundamentally human, retain their "inferiority" to the white characters, socially and intellectually.
It is most certainly a product of its time, and will lead to unintentionally cringe-worthy moments — but what is particularly concerning is the place Gone with the Wind holds in the pop-cultural canon. It is easy, but irresponsible, to sweep aside great works of art as simply great works of entertainment. How do we morally accept a work that is undeniably, unforgivably complicit in the furtherance of dangerous narratives — namely the validity of the Confederate movement — while acknowledging the fact that the same work is part of the DNA of almost every film we have seen since?
Gone with the Wind is, in a sense, an immovable monolith — a work whose impact is still being felt today (not least in the awarding of this year's Best Picture to Green Book, a film with similarly ancient views on race in America). Perhaps the only way to truly appreciate its role in our society — both good and bad — is to watch it through a critical lens.
Gone With The Wind srceens on Sky Movies Vintage next
Sunday, March 10