If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives its best picture prize to “12 Years a Slave” in two months it will, among other things, be a corrective for giving the same award to “Gone with the Wind” in 1940.
Steve McQueen’s stunning film tells an important story of one black man’s experiences as a slave but it also works as a criticism of the way that Hollywood has reinforced the pre-Civil War mythology of white Southerners for much of the past century.
Through the emotional power of “GWTW” millions of moviegoers all over the world have shared in the regret of a fallen white slave-owning class for the past 70 years. Americans are quick to attack the propagandistic power of Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” but the David O. Selznick picture is so hard-wired into our pop cultural DNA that it is still praised as one of the greatest accomplishments of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Last week, while browsing through the 2008 Library of America publication, “American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now,” I stumbled on an amazing 1939 review by the black poet Melvin B. Tolson who often wrote about movies in his column “Caviar and Cabbage” for the African-American newspaper, Washington Tribune.
The 71-year-old piece is called “‘Gone with the Wind’ is More Dangerous Than ‘Birth of a Nation’”
Tolson starts by praising the performance of Hattie McDaniel (who would go on to become the first black performer to win an Oscar) but then he gets right to the point:
“‘The Birth of a Nation’ was such a barefaced lie that a moron could see through it. ‘Gone with the Wind’ is such a subtle lie that it will be swallowed as the truth by millions of whites and blacks alike.”
“…the fact that this movie caused a red-letter day in the South should have warned Negroes. The fact that it was acclaimed by Confederate veterans who fought to keep Negroes enslaved should have warned us…the picture was praised extravagantly in Darkest Mississippi where Negro children are not permitted to read the Constitution in school. The commendation of the White South means the condemnation of the Negro.”
Tolson directly addressed his black readers, “Be not deceived, if you love your race. I am sure you would not ask an enemy to recommend you for a position…If you put poison in certain kinds of foods, you can’t tell it. If you beat a man long enough with your fists, you can slap him and he’ll appreciate the slap.”
Of the film’s tremendous popularity with black audiences, Tolson wrote, “I must give the Southern novelist and the white producer credit for one thing: they certainly fooled the Negro and at the same put over their anti-Negro, anti-Yankee, KKK propaganda.”
It’s an amazing essay, well worth reading in its entirety in “American Movie Critics.”