It’s not Oscar season if someone isn’t upset. It’s absurd that such-and-such movie didn’t get nominated. That piece of crap got in? Man, insert pandering / boring / uninventive movie here is going to win, isn’t it? For something many cinephiles purport to brush off, we sure care a lot about the Oscars. That’s because they’re a barometer by which more casual moviegoers in our lives measure what’s best. Instead of carping about controversial selections for Best Picture — which could fill a year’s worth of columns no one would read — we figured it would be more interesting to arguments from advocates for these choices. Welcome to Midwest Film Journal’s Oscar Gold.
In 1940, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated 10 films from 1939 for what was then called the Academy Award for Outstanding Production (since renamed Best Picture). For this, the 12th annual Academy Awards event, the nominees were Dark Victory, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Love Affair, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights and the eventual winner, Gone with the Wind.
Of that lineup, one can only say: Wow!
And it was quite an evening for Gone with the Wind (GWTW) at the Coconut Grove of the Ambassador Hotel on Feb. 29, 1940 — winning 10 Academy Awards (eight competitive, two honorary) from 13 total nominations, then a record for wins and nominations. In addition to the top prize, Victor Fleming won Best Director, Sidney Howard posthumously received Best Adapted Screenplay, Vivien Leigh took the Best Actress statue, and Hattie McDaniel’s win in Best Supporting Actress made her the first African-American to win an Academy Award.
It has since become regarded as one of the greatest films of all time — in the top 10 of the American Film Institute’s list of America’s 100 greatest films every year since the list’s inception in 1998. The United States Library of Congress selected GWTW for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1989.
So … why am I writing a defense of it winning Best Picture in 1940?
That’s because GWTW is controversial for many people — even reviled by some — as they think it somehow promotes slavery, romanticizes the Deep South pre-War culture, glorifies the “political organizations” of “protective” citizens (some of which, in reality, eventually became the Ku Klux Klan), and diminishes or demeans the African-American characters through their accents, behaviors and facial expressions. People who feel that way liken GWTW to the intentionally racist The Birth of a Nation (1915), a comparison I’ve never understood. I detest Birth of a Nation and all it stands for. Directed and co-produced by D.W. Griffith (whose father was a Colonel in the Confederate Army!), the film was based upon the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr. — an American white supremacist. Comparing the intentionally racist and truly despicable Birth of a Nation to most films that may make us uncomfortable about racism is patently unfair.
GWTW is certainly no Birth of a Nation, but the other criticisms listed above are equally unfair to the film. GWTW reflects the story’s time period through the lens of 1939 America, when African-American roles in films barely existed. Let’s face it: In 1939, even blackface (on white actors) was not in the past — with research from film historians Douglas Pye and John Gibbs citing more than 70 examples in films between 1927 and 1953. In Hollywood’s Silent Era and Golden Age, most roles for minorities were in some way demeaning. But minority actors and actresses knew that to work in film, to be onscreen, was what mattered. Most of them wanted the world to see an Asian face, a Native American face, an African-American face on the screen. Performers like McDaniel and Sidney Poitier (also an eventual Oscar winner) have gone on record to say they did whatever they had to do in order to pave the way for other African-American actors and actresses.
In the end, GWTW isn’t a documentary. It is a film, based upon a novel that is a period piece. As such, the film GWTW is a fictional story set in a real time period. Period pieces reflect 1) the time period in which the story takes place, and 2) the time of release (or publication). It is a film that was created through the lenses of the 1930s and the Civil War era. In effect, to accurately defend GWTW as a period film that, even today, deserves winning the 1940 Academy Award for Outstanding Production, we’d need to time-travel not only to the 1930s, but also to the 1860s and 1870s when the film’s story takes place. As of publication time, time travel isn’t possible. So I’ll just say this:
Film and Television are POWERFUL influencers of culture, for good or bad. The entire history of film and TV is rife with prejudice, discrimination, and intolerant behavior towards non-whites including ALL people of color. There is also systemic discrimination in films and TV shows against women, LGBTQIA, “the poor”, non-Christian religions, ethnicities, etc etc. And there are thousands of films and novels — both well-known and lesser-known than GWTW — that are also period pieces depicting uncomfortable and / or horribly stereotypical characterizations of minorities and rich white people’s period-specific treatment of them. These innumerable films and TV shows include dialect and racist depictions of black Americans from various historical time period, and similar racist depictions or dialect are in non-American made films and TV shows as well. That means any and all films and TV shows, directed by white or POC directors might need to be revisited for discussion of their historical context. We also need to look carefully at films and TV shows that EXCLUDE diversity: no matter how popular, films and TV shows that exclude people of color are complicit in furthering systemic racism.
Singling out GWTW as racist is a limited response to a systemic problem: systemic racism and negative stereotypes exist in all films/TV that depict black Americans. Even films and TV shows that are on the “right side” of trying to be antiracist typically have negative stereotyping through dialect, character depiction, hate behavior, etc.
The adaptation of classic novels to film/TV has produced “classic films” that have problematic content that’s appropriately uncomfortable in today’s more enlightened world (we should be uncomfortable with cultural norms that promote inequality, intolerance, abuse, etc). Yet, should we single out and disparage GWTW? Shall we disparage other classic films like To Kill a Mockingbird as racist because it reflects 1930s unpleasant stereotypes of African-Americans and “poor white trash”? How about The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? What about Sleeping With The Enemy or Dolores Claiborne, which reflect domestic abuse? What about the thousands of movies where men simply treat women with common, often-unnoticed and culturally accurate condescension?
The examples are endless: the stereotyping of any minority or cultural group in limiting, unfavorable ways in period pieces is a universal experience to all walks of life: LGBTQIA, Asians, Hispanics, Latinxs, Native Americans, Arabs, Muslims, Indians (from India), Jews, women, prisoners, Irish (especially as pre-1900 immigrants to the US), Germans (also as early immigrants to the US, and in WWII-period pieces), “the poor” in any era, people “in service” in all those Downtown Abbey and Jane Austen-esque films, and so many more.
Shall we disparage or discount all of those films because they reflect (in any given time period) the ways rich white people treated minorities and they portray uncomfortable stereotypes? Or shall we view them through the period lenses through which they were created — using that lens as a way to understand how far we’ve come and have yet to go? GWTW holds itself up as the gold standard for the latter.