In 2003, I was in Memphis doing research for an article about the militia movement when I learned that the Orpheum Theatre was showing Gone with the Wind. I had seen the 1939 Oscar-winning film a few times on television but never on the big screen.
I remember being struck for the first time by select words in the fade-in describing the South: "cavaliers," "gallantry," "knights" and "ladies fair."
While reading the novel and watching the film on television, such terms did not stand out. But in the theater, with dramatic theme music playing and more than 1,000 rapt viewers all around, the terms took on ominous meaning. They hailed the end of a tradition, a class of people, "a dream remembered, a civilization gone with the wind," as the fade-in states.
For nearly four hours, I was a captive of Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable). I left the theater in love with the film, having seen it in a new light.
So when I learned a few weeks ago that the Orpheum had ended its 34-year tradition of showing the film because it is "racially insensitive," I was disappointed.
Brett Batterson, president of the theater, said in a statement: "As an organization whose stated mission is to 'entertain, educate and enlighten the communities it serves,' the Orpheum cannot show a film that is insensitive to a large segment of its local population."
In reality, according to several news accounts, only a handful of black residents formally complained about the film. But during our current hyper-racial climate, the theater pulled Gone with the Wind to avoid further controversy.
The problem is that many people see Gone with the Wind as being equivalent to a Confederate monument, memorial or statue. It is not. The film, a work of art, was shown in the Orpheum, a private venue where customers freely chose to pay for the experience. Those who found the film objectionable chose not to pay to see it.
Confederate monuments, memorials and statues are not works of art. They are polemics, political declarations, that indict the North and all who oppose the South's inhumanity. These polemics, more often than not, are placed on public property for all the wrong reasons.
Many are placed in front of buildings where government business is conducted. Why are statues of Confederate soldiers holding weapons placed in front of courthouses, where justice is ostensibly sought? Why do these statues contain inscriptions that glorify the treasonous rebel cause?
Gone with the Wind has nothing in common with these statues, and the Orpheum is wrongheaded to stop screening the film. No work of art — even the objectionable — should be destroyed or banished from an appropriate venue. The Orpheum is a privately owned and operated theater. Museums and graveyards are appropriate venues for the Civil War's dead fighters.
Like many other African-Americans who have seen Gone with the Wind, I cringe each time the black characters Mammy, Prissy, Pork and Big Sam appear. Nothing in the film repels me more than the scene in which Prissy acknowledges that she lied when claiming she knew about childbirth. Faced with a real birth, she declares: "Lawsy, we'se got ter have a doctah! Ah doan know nuthin 'bout birthin' babies!"
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When Scarlett slaps Prissy and starts to drag the slave across the landing, I can hardly watch. But I watch this and other acts of cruelty because I can intellectually place them in the context of the filmmakers' desire to stay true to the novel, the original work of art.
Will the time come when other films such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Driving Miss Daisy are banned from television? After all, they also portray black characters in a negative light.
We should continue to make fine distinctions between discomforting art and hateful polemic. When we compare Gone with the Wind with a statue of Robert E. Lee, we cease to be rational. The film depicts the inevitable demise of a culture that treated humans atrociously. Statues of Lee celebrate that atrocity. We should not let Gone with the Wind become a casualty of the Trump era's racial chaos.