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Jeff Simon: Why I still despise 'Gone With the Wind'

Jeff Simon

I was 12 the first time I saw "Gone With the Wind." I despised it then and I still do.

My biggest problem with it, even as a pre-teen, was its contemptible and utterly nauseating portrayal of black people, particularly black womanhood. In the mid-'50s, when I saw it, I didn't care how many Oscars they gave Hattie McDaniel. (She accepted her award in what was otherwise a segregated "whites only" hotel and wasn't allowed at the "Gone With the Wind" table.) Nor did I care how much extraordinary performer's cunning was exhibited by character actress Butterfly McQueen. The roles they played were detestable stereotypes.

My problem was that for the first 12 years of my life, my family was prosperous enough to have a live-in housekeeper, who happened to be African-American. The family finances exploded when I was 12 and the rest of my adolescence was spent in the opposite situation -- a family trying to survive constant economic struggle and peril.

But for the first 12 years of my life, I was in the most intimate daily contact with a black woman who lived on our third floor. Her name was Lossie. She was one of the finest human beings I've ever known or ever hope to know, an embodiment of human virtue during my tenderest years. She was loving and kind and gentle but she was also shrewd, resolute and unfailingly dignified. She worked hard every day and I never heard a complaining and unkind word pass from her lips, even on occasions where they might have.

At the same time, there was never a second in our house where anyone considered her a lesser person in any way. On the contrary, she was the most self-evidently superior person I knew in my early childhood. To this day I wish I'd learned more from her.

Lossie was the living repudiation of every stupid cliche about black womanhood in America. She is why I found "Gone With the Wind" barely tolerable from its opening seconds.

I'm no fool. I know how great the performances are in the movie by Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh. (I still can't bear to watch Olivia DeHavilland or Leslie Howard but that's another story.) And that crane shot at the Atlanta Railroad station carpeted with the broken bodies of wounded soldiers is one of the greatest -- and most genuinely awesome -- moments in the history of American movies. (Typically, it can't be credited to one person but rather three people -- producer David O. Selznick and cinematographers Lee Garmes and Ernest Haller, with enormous help for all three.)

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh in the iconic image from "Gone With the Wind." (News file photo)

I have known many women of unimpeachable character and intelligence who hold the movie in highest regard because of its portrait of a woman who would not only survive but surmount all of life's circumstances. I understand that and respect it.

I still find the movie vile and offensive in every important part. It purports to show us the lamentable fate of "gentility" in the old South which, as a pre-teen, only made me wish General Sherman godspeed on his appointed rounds in Georgia. (My feelings there moderated a little over time.)

I'm writing about "Gone With the Wind" now for a simple reason: The movie is a perfect cinematic analog to a statue of Robert E. Lee in the park.

I have no desire to see "Gone With the Wind" forever removed from public exhibition. (D.W. Griffith's overtly racist, pro-Klan "Birth of a Nation" either). In a perfect world, every new member of its audience would sign a pledge that they've previously seen "12 Years a Slave" but this is very far from a perfect world. That's not the way America works and, for some good reasons, I'm grateful for that.

I have no desire to see every public monument to the confederacy destroyed either -- not when there are perfect places for all of them: museums. Given the nature of "that peculiar institution" slavery, none of them belong in a public park or on a public street -- not even a statute of Robert E. Lee, a very great general for a cause (slavery) he didn't endorse ("a moral and political evil," he called it in a letter to president Franklin Pierce.)

They're all historical relics, reminders of horrors that those monuments are pretending weren't horrors. That was the point New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu brilliantly, movingly and enduringly made about his city's removal of four such monuments.

They are monuments in public parks to the pain by those of different color who were transported to America in chains. Such monuments to history deserve to be housed only where such monuments are made to be housed: museums.

So that we "never forget" -- but are also never so vile and hateful that we offer them as cultural ideals either. They belong nowhere in America as "public art" -- not unless every park also has a statue in tribute to the immense population that served, against its will, as the economic backbone of a whole segment of America.

And if there is not enough museum room in America for all the statues and some have to be thrown into storage rooms never to be seen or polished up again?

As Rhett famously said to Scarlett, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn."



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