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D E C E M B E R  1 9 9 9

Movies 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

by Leonard J. Leff

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)

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.

Discuss this article in Post & Riposte.

More on politics & society in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

More on arts & culture in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"Whatever Happened to Integration?", by Gerald Early (February, 1997)
"Why are American films generally disposed not to deal with personal problems as having political and economic origins? Is it because of the ideology of individualism that so permeates the culture and that everyone -- black and white -- believes?"

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashback: "Gone With the Wind" (July 9, 1998)
In 1973, Gavin Lambert told of the fortuitous circumstances that brought this would-be American epic to life, and a group of critics -- including Stanley Kauffmann, Judith Crist, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. -- attempted to explain its perennial popularity.

Related links:

The David O. Selznick Collection: Gone With the Wind
An online exhibit about the making of the movie. Includes original correspondence, costume designs, photos, information about the casting search, and more. Posted as part of the David O. Selnick Collection at the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.

Gone With the Wind Liner Notes
Information about the book, the movie, the score, the actors, and the producers. Posted by Rhino Records.

Gone With the Wind
The official site of the re-released version of the movie. Offers photos, video excerpts, a history of the making of the movie, and more.

The Movies, Race, and Ethnicity: African Americans
A videography of movies in which African-Americans are represented, recommended readings about portrayals of African-Americans in film, and links to related resources. Posted by the Media Resources Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

Midnight Ramble: The Negro in Early Hollwood
An exhibit highlighting "the work of Black Hollywood from the period just after World War I through the 1940s. It considers everything from the low budget, independent Race movies of Oscar Micheaux to major studio productions."

Gone With the Wind 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."

Lacking the protection and moral schooling of whites, the "bad" blacks were an unruly lot. Mammy and Big Sam called them "niggers." Mitchell called them "black apes" who committed "outrages on women." Reconstruction brought out the worst in these characters. Passing through Shantytown one evening, Scarlett was attacked by "a squat black negro with shoulders and chest like a gorilla." He was "so close that she could smell the rank odor of him" as he ripped open her bodice and "fumbled between her breasts." The Ku Klux Klan, according to Gone With the Wind, was a "tragic necessity."

In treatments of the screenplay written throughout early 1937, Sidney Howard retained many of the incidents and much of the tone of Mitchell's southern romance. And in general, intent on fidelity to the novels he produced for the screen, Selznick was pleased. "One never knows what chemicals have gone to make up something that has appealed to millions of people," he wrote to Howard, or "how many seeming faults of construction have been part of the whole, and how much the balance would be offset by making changes ... in our innocence, or even in our ability."

On reflection, though, Selznick knew that he could go too far in his faithfulness to Mitchell's text. "I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film," he wrote in an exhaustive, exhausting memorandum to the screenwriter. "In our picture I think we have to be awfully careful that the Negroes come out decidedly on the right side of the ledger, which I do not think should be difficult." The screenplay needed only a deletion here, an elision there, starting, he told Howard, with references to the Ku Klux Klan. "A group of men can go out to 'get' the perpetrators of an attempted rape without having long white sheets over them and without having their membership in a society as a motive," Selznick wrote. About the words "darkies" and "niggers," which also appeared in the screenplay, the producer said nothing.

By the spring of 1937, spurred by memories of racism in The Birth of a Nation, black organizations on both coasts had written to Selznick International about Gone With the Wind. "We consider this work to be a glorification of the old rotten system of slavery, propaganda for race-hatreds and bigotry, and incitement of lynching," members of a Pittsburgh group wrote in a letter that, like other such correspondence, has rarely been cited, much less discussed, in popular histories of the picture. One studio official called such opinions "ridiculous," yet many blacks were convinced otherwise; they genuinely feared that what they saw as an "anti-Negro" novel would become an "anti-Negro" film. Selznick International meanwhile hastened to assure them that no movie company "intends to offer to the public material that is offensive or conducive to race prejudice."

Cautionary letters continued to arrive at the producer's Culver City offices well into 1938. An associate of the Conference of American Rabbis told Selznick that the novel, though it entertained readers, also excited a latent "anti-Negro antipathy." Selznick, the correspondent said, must not cater to the public's narrow-mindedness, in part because it was wrong and in part because he, David Selznick, like most of his Hollywood peers, was a Jew. Walter White, the secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, also wrote to the producer. He offered to send along a packet of well-researched papers that demonstrated Mitchell's biased presentation of Reconstruction. Better still, he suggested, the studio should employ "a person, preferably a Negro, who is qualified to check on possible errors of fact or interpretation."

Selznick responded warmly. He, too, was a member of a persecuted race, he told White, and was sensitive to minority peoples' opinions. Moreover, he intended to hire "a Negro of high standing to watch the entire treatment of the Negroes, the casting of the actors for these roles, the dialect that they use, etcetera, throughout the picture." Among the candidates, he confided, was Hall Johnson.

Johnson, the leader of the Hall Johnson Choir, had been in and around Hollywood for several years. His music graced The Green Pastures, and his singers, chained to oars, had sung and acted in Slave Ship. He was precisely what White feared: an insider, likely to endorse whatever portrait of slavery the studio conceived. White wrote Selznick that he hoped for a scholar, perhaps someone from Howard University. There, for the moment, the matter rested.

THE casting of black roles in Gone With the Wind took place throughout late 1938. Selznick International scouted some actors by watching their previous films, others by attending their current onstage performances in Los Angeles. The Pittsburgh Courier, a black paper with national circulation, reported that one prominent actor (Clinton Rosamond) had not been considered because he was "'too polished'" for the parts. Others, according to a Courier correspondent, abased themselves during the auditions.

Picture yourselves standing before Producer David O. Selznick, Director George Cukor, and 26 members of the production staff, all white, and reading [a] script which contains the word "Nigger" several times. Well, approximately one hundred Negro actors did just that in competing for coveted roles in the picture while all their years of racial pride [were] being wafted away on the wings of a gust of 'Wind.'

Like Eleanor Roosevelt, though, who engineered a screen test for her cook, most black actors saw GWTW as an opportunity for renown. Hattie McDaniel even auditioned in "Mammy rags" that may have been borrowed from the studio wardrobe department; she, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, and the other black actors chosen for GWTW were pleased to have work, especially in what promised to be a major picture.

As the principal photography began, in early 1939, scrutiny by the black press increased. Eight years before, The Pittsburgh Courier had acquired thousands of signatures on a petition to bar Amos 'n' Andy from the airwaves. The Courier hoped for even wider support on Gone With the Wind. Using the screenplay's racial epithets as a battle cry, the paper threatened a letter-writing offensive and, if necessary, a boycott of the finished picture. Selznick was nonplussed. The movie industry's censors had ruled only that "nigger" "should not be put in the mouth of white people. In this connection you might want to give some consideration to the use of the word 'darkies.'" For once, Selznick agreed with the Hays Office; certainly, he thought, the black characters could use "nigger" among themselves. But the Courier was not alone in its outrage.

The more strident Los Angeles Sentinel called for a boycott of "every other Selznick picture, present and future." "What's more," the paper continued, "let's start a campaign and find out whether or not some of those who oppose Hitler from a safe distance have courage enough to oppose race prejudice when it may hit them in their careers and in their pocketbooks." Again Selznick was baffled. Perhaps, he thought, he should hire a black agent as a public-relations liaison to the black community. Or perhaps he should simply have the legal department send harsh warning letters to reporters and others whose inflammatory comments threatened to injure the production.

Selznick had meanwhile chosen his technical advisers -- both white. Aware of the potential for political backlash, he asked Kay Brown to assure Walter White that "the only liberties we have taken with the book have been liberties to improve the Negro position in the picture and that we have the greatest friendship toward them and their cause." Moreover, he promised that his advisers would not allow the studio to "turn out a Hollywood or NY conception of the Negro." Whether Selznick, Brown, or the studio consultants understood the "Negro position" was uncertain. Susan Myrick, a Macon Telegraph reporter and a dialect coach for GWTW, was convinced that the atmosphere of the picture belonged to the black characters; accordingly, she intended to teach the black actors to speak like "the middle Georgia Negro of befo-de-wah days." However accurate, that accent would connote the poverty and ignorance of black people -- both the characters and, as White could easily have imagined, the actors who played them.

Kay Brown soon reported to Culver City on her meeting with Walter White. "Mr. White, honey chile, is a negro who by virtue of being white goes many places as a white," she wrote. "However, he does not sail under false colors and is well known in New York as a negro and promptly told me he was one during the first five minutes of the interview." Brown was charming, White was affable, and they parted friends; it was so merry a get-together that Brown hated to tell Selznick that White had asked for a copy of the screenplay.

White would have objected strenuously to "nigger," as Brown and Selznick must have known. Butterfly McQueen (Prissy) also apparently objected to the word, at least privately. "I was unhappy because it seemed so authentic," she later told a Georgia newspaper. The antecedents for "it" were presumably the clothes, the accent, the deference to the white characters, and above all the use in the screenplay of "nigger" -- a word whose authenticity reminded her of a racial legacy she longed to forget. "I complained so much," she added, that Hattie McDaniel "warned me that Mr. Selznick would never give me another job." In fact McDaniel, too, had complained. According to The Pittsburgh Courier, she was "race-proud" and would never say the word "nigger." According to her biographer, Carlton Jackson, she also influenced her peers to make known their feelings about its use. Meanwhile, Joe Breen, the director of the Hays Office, was having second thoughts. A re-release of The Birth of a Nation was pending; because of that and reports of theater riots over use of the word "nigger" in a 1934 picture, Breen urged that Gone With the Wind delete all racial epithets.

Selznick wanted to retain the "Negro flavor" of the picture -- but to use "nigger" he would have to face down White, Breen, the black press, and his black actors. The actors, meeting privately with Victor Shapiro, the studio public-relations director, had expressed their anxiety over racial elements of the production yet agreed to play the slaves more or less as Margaret Mitchell and Sidney Howard had written them. In return, Shapiro vowed that they would not have to say "nigger." Selznick, with mixed feelings, honored Shapiro's promise. The words "darkies" and "inferiors" stayed in the screenplay -- but not "nigger."

For some, the elimination of "nigger" temporarily halted the war against Gone With the Wind. "This admission marks a victory for the Pittsburgh Courier," wrote the columnist Earl Morris, who had led the charge. Victory was sweet, too, as anyone could tell by the columnist's smile in the photograph taken of him at Selznick International; as a guest of the studio, he was shown looking over the revised script. No less eager to have friends in Hollywood, Walter White lent his name to a Selznick International form letter designed for blacks and others concerned about GWTW's racial agenda. The text not only attributed the deletion of "nigger" to White but also touted the studio's portrayal of the chief black characters as "lovable, faithful, high-typed people -- so picturized that they can leave no impression but a very nice one."

Continued...

(The online version of this article appears in two parts. Click here to go to part two.)


Leonard J. Leff has written for Film Comment, Opera News, and other magazines.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December 1999; "Gone With the Wind" and Hollywood's Racial Politics - 99.12; Volume 284, No. 6; page 106-114.