"Gone With the Wind" and Hollywood's Racial Politics

Making Gone With the Wind, David O. Selznick discovered, meant dealing with fierce criticism from black newspapers and public officials.

THROUGHOUT the late 1920s and early 1930s Margaret Mitchell, an Atlanta newspaperwoman, was writing a Civil War epic that she assumed no one would ever read. It had "precious little obscenity in it," she later told one correspondent, "no adultery and not a single degenerate, and I couldn't imagine a publisher being silly enough to buy it." Macmillan acquired the novel, however, and months before its publication, in 1936, the work was under consideration all over Hollywood. Opinion at Selznick International Pictures was divided: the story editor on the West Coast called the book "ponderous trash"; the story editor on the East Coast called it "absolutely magnificent." In the event, David O. Selznick bought Gone With the Wind for $50,000. The book, a commercial and cultural phenomenon, sold a million copies during its first month in print. The motion picture, which opened sixty years ago this month, remains a testament to the Technicolor glory of the Hollywood studio system.

had not gone easily to the screen. From the adaptation of the novel and the casting of Scarlett O'Hara to the heated negotiations with censors over small and not-so-small matters in the film, Selznick International faced one problem after another. David Selznick met -- and solved -- most of them. One persisted, though, and reasserted itself on February 29, 1940. Late in the afternoon of that day Hattie McDaniel was dressing for the Academy Awards banquet. A nominee for Best Supporting Actress, for her role as Mammy, she was apparently the first black actor ever to compete for an Oscar. She may have been uneasy about protocol, for she was to dine at the Coconut Grove with her producer, Selznick, and the white stars of the picture, including Olivia de Havilland, also a nominee for Best Supporting Actress.

"We trust that discrimination and prejudice will be wiped away in the selection of the winner of this award," members of a national black sorority had written to Selznick International some weeks before, "for without Miss McDaniel, there would be no Gone With the Wind." Selznick agreed -- or so he told his correspondents. He nonetheless saw the letter as evidence that the disheartening, long-running debate on Gone With the Wind was not yet over.

Even before 1938, when Selznick International identified what it called a "Negro Problem," black Americans had taken a strong interest in Gone With the Wind. The black press was the most consistent and perhaps the most influential of the studio's advisers on racial issues; others included black actors, national black organizations, and the movie industry's notorious Hays Office. These people and institutions lacked common goals, and, as the historian Thomas Cripps has written, they rarely spoke with one voice. Some opposed production and release of the picture; others hailed it as a fine showcase for black actors. That lack of consensus not only complicated the production for David Selznick, whose liberal instincts warred with his intention of producing his story of the Old South his way, but also made Gone With the Wind a barometer of American race relations in the 1930s and 1940s.

IN the fall of 1936, wringing his hands, Sidney Howard wondered why he had agreed to adapt Gone With the Wind for the screen. He had read and reread the novel, he wrote Selznick in early November, "and it is certainly quite a nut to crack." Two weeks later, from his home in rural Massachusetts, he wrote Margaret Mitchell that she had been too generous; her story was far more than he could compress into the two hours' screen time he was permitted. He would soldier on, of course, but he wanted her to read over his outline and to help out, especially with the black characters -- "the best written darkies, I do believe, in all literature," he wrote. "They are the only ones I have ever read which seemed to come through uncolored by white patronising."

Like many northern whites, Howard looked to southern whites as authorities on "black psychology." Mitchell wanted to reinforce the notion of southern expertise, because to her, the Hollywood South often looked like a cartoon. In Wonder Bar (1934), for instance, Al Jolson had blacked up for a musical number staged in a fantasyland of pork chops and watermelons. Mitchell expected no better in Gone With the Wind: "Three hundred massed Negro singers," she wrote in a letter to Kay Brown, Selznick's New York representative, "standing on Miss Pittypat's lawn waving their arms and singing 'Swing low, sweet chariot, comin' for to carry me home,' while Rhett drives up with the wagon."

But some readers had found Mitchell's treatment of race less a cartoon than a nightmare. She had, for example, depicted her leading black characters as content with slavery, uninterested in freedom. They often seemed more like pets than people. When Scarlett and Big Sam were reunited after the war, "his watermelon-pink tongue lapped out, his whole body wiggled, and his joyful contortions were as ludicrous as the gambolings of a mastiff." The "good" black characters both loved and needed the whites. Though Mammy was one of the strongest characters in the novel, she could not manage Tara after the war without the guidance of her white masters. Her mind was too simple, not yet fully evolved, as readers could infer from a description of her as she looked at the once-grand plantation, her face "sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey's face."

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