“Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So said Spanish philosopher George Santayana in a famous quote that made such an impression on Winston Churchill that he echoed it in British Parliament just after the end of World War II. Some might want to keep that sentiment in mind if they don’t want 2021 to look suspiciously like 1921. Or 1821 even.
This came to mind today upon hearing that HBO was pulling Gone with the Wind from its newly-launched streaming service. The reason? Some people complain that the 1939 movie about the Civil War in Georgia is “racist”. The Black people are portrayed as slaves, people subservient to Whites and in general not as smart (at least in conventional educational terms) nor as revered or wealthy.
Which would be a problem if it were a movie set in the present day. Especially if it was one which was deemed to be a documentary rather than a work of fiction. In the context of mid-19th Century Dixie, however, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. In fact, any other presentation would seem phony and ridiculous. History people!
I haven’t seen the film actually. I guess it just isn’t my theatrical cup of tea, given that it came out more than two decades before my birth I could have. It has been readily available for years on VHS and then DVD, not to mention quite a few TV showings. Turns out I’ve only seen 26 out of the AFI’s (American Film Institute) “100 Greatest Movies of All-time”. I mean, how can we be talking “greatest films” and not have Groundhog Day there? But that doesn’t stop it being a widely-loved and important movie. The Film Institute ranked it as the fourth greatest of the 20th Century. In their latest list, it comes in as the sixth best ever. The Academy back in the day agreed too, giving it eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. So popular has the three-hour plus film back then that the Governor of Georgia declared a special state holiday on the day it opened back in 1939; so popular has it been since that day that it’s said to be the highest-grossing film of all-time when box office tallies were adjusted for inflation. That’s big. That’s history in itself, in fact.
But despite all the love for it, HBO – who undoubtedly had to pay some pretty pennies to buy its rights – now think it too dangerous for people to view. They say the movie depicts “racial prejudices that were wrong then and are wrong now.” They fail to see that any depiction of the American South set 160 or more years ago inherently must depict racial prejudice for it to have any value whatsoever.
We’ve been through this all before, with libraries which wanted to pull Huckleberry Finn from their shelves and schools which stopped teaching To Kill A Mockingbird for the same reasons. The latter of course is all the more galling given that the main character is a White man who goes against the prevailing beliefs and norms, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan of his early-20th Century Alabama community and legally defends an innocent Black man. But that wouldn’t stop the most sensitive types from complaining that the Black people in those novels weren’t universally held in high regard in their Southern communities nor holders of prestigious positions.
I don’t subscribe to HBO Max, and if I did I’d probably prefer to spend 220 minutes binge-watching nine episodes of Friends than watching Gone with the Wind. I mean, sorry but Vivien Leigh is no Jennifer Aniston and in all likelihood Clark Gable’s “Rhett” isn’t as witty as Matthew Perry’s “Chandler”. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the movie should be there for those who want to view it. Actually, if I had signed up after viewing ads they ran showing it as a feature you’d get, I’d probably be a bit P.O.’d if they pulled it.
What happened to George Floyd was terrible, cruel and criminal. That’s obvious. So too was the fact that slavery was alive, well and revered in the South many years ago. What isn’t terrible or cruel is telling the stories. So I say HBO, bring back Gone with the Wind. If you decide to have the family watch it, go ahead and explain the context of Georgia and the Confederacy in the 1850s. Talk about the Civil War with the children, why people felt it was necessary to fight their neighbors to the south. Talk about equality and our nation’s values. If you actually think that Gone with the Wind perpetuates inequality, talk about that too in context of it being a hugely-popular film that’s been watched millions of times over 80-plus years. But go ahead and watch, and go ahead and talk about the issues.
Watch it or don’t watch it. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. But I do care that we have a chance and a choice. And if you don’t want to speed a repetition of history along, you probably should too.