Revisiting Gone With The Wind: Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism, defiant female characters

More than anything else, Gone With The Wind is a lasting lesson in hope.

Aishwarya Sahasrabudhe July 21, 2020 15:01:57 IST
Revisiting Gone With The Wind: Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism, defiant female characters

What makes a classic? How does a much-talked-about film or TV show of its time go on to attain cult status? In our new column, Rewind to Unwind, we break down classics to see how they stand in 2020 and how they have aged (if at all).

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Why Gone With The Wind?

Gone With The Wind, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, chronicles the sunset of a civilisation now known as the Old South and the dire consequences of a conflict which laid to waste a land once so fertile and abundant. It is a poignant narrative of the racism which was at the root of the Civil War and the systemic subordination of African Americans at the hands of their oppressors. Over time, countless other films aimed to offer a more nuanced view on the civil war, racism and  systemic oppression, but Gone With The Wind has always remained the definitive classic in this regard.

For me, the allure of the film also lies in its protagonist, the free spirited, snooty, southern belle, Scarlett O’Hara and her adventures as she navigates the forces of war, starvation, love and loss.  It is the story of one girl defying all convention in pursuit of the man she thinks she loves. A young girl finding her way around the tedious norms of propriety, Scarlett stands out for me as a notorious and colourful character whose bravery and mischief is enough to give her an agency that far exceeds her contemporaries, or mine. It is this courage, fortitude and sheer dare that I ponder upon as I re-visit Gone With The Wind.

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“Where shall I go? What shall I do?”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The first time I watched Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic, Gone With The Wind, I could not help but feel smugly satisfied when Rhett Butler walked out on Scarlett O’Hara with these final words and she flopped down on the staircase in tears. Rhett’s retort, which made waves upon the film’s release all those decades ago, also went on to become one of the most famous dialogues uttered on screen. It has been dissected and talked about a lot over the last 81 years, as has the film, a screen adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name and yet, every time I sit down to watch Gone With The Wind, I discover a new layer which had eluded me earlier. To my mind, that explains its enduring relevance.

I first watched Gone With The Wind as an unruly adolescent and recall being completely overawed by Scarlett. Vivian Leigh’s excellent portrayal of the young girl, with her big, bright eyes, her lips set in a sly smile and her proud head held high while she flirted with her many admirers was all besotting. I watched with wide eyed wonder her unashamed outpourings of love to Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) which he rejects repeatedly, her three scandalous marriages, and her disregard for reputation. What also won me over was her determination and industriousness when she set about the task of restoring her father’s plantation, Tara. At every step, I wondered, what will she do next? I had never before watched a heroine so charismatic, tempestuous and sure of herself and a part of my awkward, freckled teenage person wanted to be her.

At the time, much like Scarlett, I thought everything and everyone in the film revolved around her; it was only later that I began to spot the socio-political undertones of the film, such as the patronisation of the African-Americans and the celebration of a civilisation built on the backbone of slavery.

This deep-rooted racism was brought into sharper focus especially when I re-watched the film for the purpose of this essay while across the seas, in the United States of America, the death of George Floyd, an African-American, was rekindling the Black Lives Matter protests against policy brutality inflicted on people of colour.

In 2020, watching Gone With The Wind was an exercise of patience. Running times of movies have shortened considerably to keep up with our reduced attention spans and I broke the nearly four-hour-long film into two halves, with long intervals in between.

At the very outset, the film announces that it is the story of the Old South, of Master and Slave, of a world that has long ceased to exist.

“Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered; a civilisation, gone with the wind.”

Revisiting Gone With The Wind Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism defiant female characters

Mammy and Scarlett. Image via Twitter

Mammy’s character embodies this systemic racism and an essay on Gone With The Wind would be incomplete without giving Mammy her due. Of the many Academy Awards the film won including Best Picture, Hattie McDaniel’s portrayal of the voluptuous, loud but kind domestic help who dedicates her entire life to serving Scarlett and the O’Hara household earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Role. But why then did she walk up on stage to receive her prize from a separate section of the audience created for African-Americans? An important slice of global history, McDaniel and her portrayal of Mammy both symbolise the segregation of African-Americans and their subdued loyalty towards their white masters.

Scarlett is a product of this civilisation, snooty, spoilt, stubborn southern belle, who wants nothing more than the conventional dream of courtship, marriage and family. But in fact, she gets none of that. For early on, her father counsels her on the value of their farm, of land as the only thing that lasts, the only thing that is worth fighting for. And saving Tara becomes the purpose of her life.

Revisiting Gone With The Wind Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism defiant female characters

Scarlett's father explains to her early on, the importance of land as the only thing worth fighting for. Image via Facebook

Rhett, as a man of disrepute himself, is quick to recognise Scarlett’s disdain for propriety and on the contrary admires her sharp wit and her resolution to work in an age when women were seldom allowed to, in order to prevent her family from starving to death. Essayed by Clark Gable, he is no dreamy, brooding Ashley, rather in complete contrast he is too much like Scarlett.

One particular scene that eternally condemns them to gossip in high society, which also created a stir in the audiences when the film first released, was of course Scarlett waltzing end to end in a ballroom on Rhett’s arm, dressed in widow’s black. But for her part, she throws this gossip out into the wind, which fits right in today when multiple narratives around women are being framed for the celluloid establishing an agency and a voice for the female protagonist.

Revisiting Gone With The Wind Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism defiant female characters

Scarlett, still mourning the death of her first husband Charles, dancing with Rhett at a charity ball. Image via Facebook

What Gone With The Wind also effectively produced on-screen was a jarring, heartbreaking description of  the devastation caused by conflict. One of the first movies to have been shot in Technicolor, its powerful imagery showcased hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers lying on open fields, the screams of terror induced by amputations and the fall of chivalry and idealism in the wake of a ghastly war.

Because for all of Scarlett’s denial, the Civil War arrives at her doorstep and she can be seen milling about at a hospital in Atlanta – where she goes in hopes of seeing Ashley again, who is by now married to the kind and sweet Melanie Hamilton (Olivia deHavillad) – without making any effort to disguise her disgust and shock. By this time she is a restless young widow, following the death of her first husband and Melanie’s brother, Charlie.

Revisiting Gone With The Wind Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism defiant female characters

Scarlett, Melanie and Ashley. Image via Facebook

Gone With The Wind is often described as a coming-of-age film and that can be spotted when Scarlett not only helps to deliver Melanie’s baby in a crumbling Atlanta and their desolate residence but also manages to escape with her to Tara when the city comes under attack. Ironically, Melanie goes on to become her dearest and perhaps only friend, who refuses to give weight to any tattle about Scarlett and Ashley.

Our protagonist is absolved of all notoriety, even her marriage to Frank – her sister’s beau she traps for tax money and who is shot dead in a flimsy attempt at avenging Scarlett’s honour. But can she be exonerated for refusing to admit her feelings for Rhett? And why then does she accept his proposal? The only fathomable reason could be their collective wealth and their extravagant life which she absolutely relishes.

For too long, Rhett pines after her before finally walking out. Hence, the smug satisfaction.

Revisiting Gone With The Wind Setting the benchmark for portrayal of racism defiant female characters

Rhett and Scarlett. Image via Facebook

There are of course several obvious problems with the film. Scarlett openly employs weak, sick prisoners in her workshop because they come cheap, she is not above hitting her coloured help, and for all his non-conformity, Rhett is far too conventional a man who will stoop to sugary sweetness to impress those that have ostracised him earlier to secure his daughter’s future in the upper echelons of society.

But, more than anything else, Gone With The Wind is a lasting lesson in hope. Because at the end, when Rhett leaves and everything seems lost, it is Scarlett’s love for her land, and for Tara, which gives her renewed energy to bring him back. She decides to go home.

To that end, the film serves its purpose in this period of the coronavirus crisis: to have faith and hold on to optimism with the sprightly conviction possessed by Scarlett. For in these uncertain times, riddled with disease and conflict, it is hope alone that will inspire us to keep going.

And as Scarlett says at the end, “After all, tomorrow is another day.”

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