It’s sensible not to screen ‘Gone with the Wind’ in Tennessee

A Memphis cinema has decided the classic film is offensive to African-Americans. They’re right

Big and boring: ‘Gone With the Wind’

Big and boring: ‘Gone With the Wind’

 

Can we compare Gone with the Wind with statues representing Confederate generals? Something like that seems to be happening in Tennessee. Earlier this week, the management at the Orpheum Theatre in Memphis announced that, following protests, the Civil War epic would not be shown again in their classic movie season.

The summer event has run for 34 years and Gone with the Wind has been a recurring attraction.

The cinema’s manager Brett Batterson commented: “As an organisation 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.”

Two years ago, the veteran critic Lou Lumenick wrote a piece for the New York Post – no radical Trotskyite free-sheet – headlined: “Gone with the Wind should go the way of the Confederate flag.” Lumenick decried the film’s romanticisation of slavery and its insidious argument that the Civil War was not really fought over that issue.

These arguments were not new, but, since its release in 1939, Gone With the Wind has resisted objections with impressive resilience. Hattie McDaniel, who played the unstoppable Mammy, became the first African-American to win an Oscar, but she was asked not to attend the premiere and she was only allowed into the Academy Awards ceremony – held at a segregated LA hotel – after producer David O Selznick pleaded with management.

The film itself makes no effort to flesh out its black characters beyond broad stereotypes fuelled on comedy, cowardliness and idiocy.

Gone with the Wind was kept aloft by its staggering popularity. It fast became the highest-grossing film of all time and held that title until The Sound of Music arrived in 1966. MGM promptly re-released the picture and it regained the top spot. It has since been passed out many times, but, when the figures are adjusted for inflation, nothing else comes close. No wonder the authorities waved away objections.

It is fair to assume that the election of Donald Trump and the disturbances in Charlottesville have now pumped up the film’s toxicity to hitherto unmatched levels.

The cinema’s statement addresses the potential offence given to local communities. More dangerous still is the notion that an unveiling of Gone With the Wind could be seen as a gesture of support towards the circling white supremacist thugs. That is the place in which we now find ourselves.

The most conspicuous downside to the decision is that it has allowed the paranoid right to get in a fluster about social justice storm-troopers censoring art and crushing freedom of expression. A popular right-wing source that I won’t name (go on, guess) argued that the left “have become what they hate: fascist moralists, hypocritical church ladies, self-righteous bullies telling others what they can and cannot watch.”

I’d keep an eye on that throbbing vein in your temple, mate. There is plenty more where that came from.

Nobody has banned Gone With the Wind. One cinema has decided that it would be insensitive to screen the big, boring thing. It is still available on DVD. If you wish to rent a print and screen it in your home cinema then you can do so.

If a case is made to burn all copies of Gone With the Wind and prohibit its exhibition then there would be justification for unease. The film has a place in film history. By virtue of its breathtaking popularity alone it tells us much about the social mesh of the United States in the years of its mid-century pomp.

Gone With the Wind may be overlong, flabby at the edges and racially dubious, but it remains a staggering technical achievement. It is, after all, the first film in colour to win best picture at the Oscars.

None of that is so important as the importance of the general principle: democracies shouldn’t burn books. We shouldn’t even burn bad books. So it’s just as well that is not what is happening.

Similar arguments have been raised around screenings of D W Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915). Another Civil War saga, that film is far more explicitly racist than Gone With the Wind. Indeed, it hangs around a celebration of the Ku Klux Klan.

In 2004, a screening at the Silent Movie Theatre in LA was cancelled following objections. The organisers had no malign intent. They had planned lectures to place the film in context, but eventually gave in to arguments that exhibition constituted the dissemination of racist propaganda.

Lumenick noted that the film “was considered one of the greatest American movies as late as the early 1960s, but is now rarely screened, even in museums”. Similar restrictions now attend the exhibition of Leni Riefenstahl’s imaginative, creative, innovative – but irrefutably offensive – propaganda films for the Nazis. You won’t see Triumph of the Will on bank holiday telly.

This caution is sensible. It does not constitute censorship. Here’s the point that the right-wing rabble seem to miss. Almost everybody agrees that care should be taken when screening material that might be potentially “offensive”.

Few mainstream cinemas will include hardcore pornography in seasons of classic movies for the summer. Even if it could be proved that no actors were abused in the making of such films, the material would be regarded as “offensive” to large parts of the audience.

This is not to suggest that any person claiming any upset, however obscure, should have the right to chase a film off screen. But it confirms that most people regard arguments on offence as worth attending. (You won’t show Debbie does Dallas to your Granny? Are you afraid she’ll be “triggered”? Huh? Huh?)

All of which is an argument for a degree of reason and moderation in such debates. There seems to be less of that around than ever. We do not want to make a bonfire of distasteful art. But it is wise to programme and publish with some sensitivity.

That is what The Orpheum has done. Leave them be.

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