American history is not pretty: It is blood-soaked and horrifying; its accomplishments are stained by genocide, slavery and moral apathy to those horrors and more. That is why white Americans, in particular, do not like to look at America as it is.
Instead, to make themselves feel good, they've learned to rewrite our history. In the decade following the Civil War, the country began to rebuild, creating an environment that was at least moving toward equality for Black Americans. However, institutionalized racism, entrenched in the government, forced the Reconstruction era to come to a screeching halt in 1877. White people began to erase the true monstrosity of their ancestors' actions while draping themselves in the facile separate-but-equal justifications of Jim Crow laws and the anonymity of Ku Klux Klan robes to commit new crimes.
Then, when the medium of cinema was born a decade later, it became one of their most essential weapons in rewriting history.
Films like D.W. Griffith's "Birth of Nation" (1915), "Gone With the Wind" (1939) and Disney's "Song of The South" (1946) sought to invent an antebellum South that never existed. By justifying slavery, racism and violence against Black people, these films helped shape a vision of the South and a Hollywood studio system that to this day clings to white savior narratives and speaks to the 66 percent of white Americans who in 2015 believed the Confederate flag is a "symbol of Southern pride" — as if it does not actually represent a betrayal of our nation.
Now, amid a global uprising that is demanding the end of systemic, institutionalized racism and police brutality against Black people, white people are seemingly turning to culture to try to make sense of the racism they are being forced to acknowledge. For instance, all of the New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller lists this week are filled with books, most of which are not recently published, aimed at making sense of race and white people's racism. Antiracist books are selling out. Major publishers are making reading and watching lists for white people looking to learn more.
And, for those who don't wish to take advice, they're flocking to streaming sites to watch "The Help" and "Gone With The Wind," the latter of which was on the new streaming service HBO Max when it recently launched.
These films do not explain the history of racism and anti-Blackness in this country, but simply appease white guilt, allowing the viewer to reassure themselves that they have nothing to do with the current uprising. Rather than turning to stories written and directed by Black people, like Ava DuVernay's "13th" or "When They See Us" on Netflix, or Raoul Peck's "I Am Not Your Negro" now streaming on Amazon Prime, white people have seemingly chosen to turn away from what's uncomfortable and decided, once again, to ignore the work of addressing what ails this nation and what needs to be done to heal it.
Turning their attention to "Gone With the Wind" in particular allows white people to ignore the injustices happening in the streets — which has always been its purpose. In "Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film," film scholar Ed Guerrero explains, "When 'Gone With the Wind' was released, the American audience was acutely aware that war was ravaging in Europe. This national uneasiness actually bolstered the film's popularity, for Hollywood followed a strategy of displacing contemporary anxieties into the distant past of the Civil War."
As a result of the influx of views of "Gone With the Wind," John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "12 Years a Slave" wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times titled “HBO, 'Gone With the Wind' romanticizes the horrors of slavery. Take it off your platform for now." In it, he wrote, "It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color."
He added, "The movie had the very best talents in Hollywood at that time working together to sentimentalize a history that never was."
HBO Max responded thoughtfully, temporarily removing it from streaming and issuing a statement. "These racist depictions were wrong then and are wrong today, and we felt that to keep this title up without an explanation and a denouncement of those depictions would be irresponsible," a spokesperson said. "It will return with a discussion of its historical context and a denouncement of those very depictions."
Of course, HBO Max's decision to temporarily remove the movie from free streaming on its platform pending the addition of historical context is already being met with backlash: Megyn Kelly, who was removed from NBC News' "TODAY" show after defending blackface on air, has, for instance, decried the move as censorship on Twitter. "For the record, you can loathe bad cops, racism, sexism, bias against the LGBTQ community, and not censor historical movies, books, music and art that don't portray those groups perfectly," she wrote. "Ppl understand art reflects life... as we evolve, so do our cultural touchstones."
Yet again, Kelly continues to miss the point: Not being able to watch something free without context is not censorship, and the "art" of "Gone With The Wind" didn't reflect Southern life, just like blackface wasn't a reflection of or homage to Black people but rather a display of racism and white supremacy.
And HBO Max certainly hasn't erased "Gone With the Wind" from the history books: It will return the movie to streaming in two forms — as it was originally created, and with context for those who actually care to better themselves. But some people will desperately clutch their "cultural touchstones" to be able to continue to place their whiteness on a pedestal, even at the expense of others.
Cinema is a specific medium. It is not a statue of a slave trader; it is not a battle flag representing the army of the 11 Southern states who treasonously seceded from the United States in the 19th century in order to preserve their right to continue enslaving other humans. And films, thankfully, do not actively terrorize citizens in public spaces.
But movies like "Gone With the Wind," "Birth of a Nation" and "Song of the South" do depict mainstream society's thoughts about Black Americans at a particular time in history — and they are also easily accessible. In fact, following HBO Max's decision to remove "Gone With the Wind," the movie is currently occupying the No. 1, No. 8 and No. 9 slot on Amazon's movie and T.V. bestseller list for the DVD, Blu-ray and the 70th anniversary editions respectively. It has sold out in every iteration and will make its way into the homes of all those people who desperately want to watch it (or at least own it to prove some sort of point) sans any context.
What HBO Max has decided to do is a still significant first step in the right direction, and it's something that other streaming services like Disney+ — which has only tacked warnings of racial insensitivity on their various programming offerings — have failed to do. "Gone With the Wind" certainly cannot be erased from American or cinematic history. Still, it can be used to educate those who are ignorant about the true history of the period, through providing factual information about slavery and racism while unpacking harmful tropes like the Mammy character that Oscar-winning actor Hattie McDaniel was relegated to portraying for the entirety of her career.
But we can not even begin to grow as a nation or dig through the suffocating layers of abhorrent racism in this country unless we face our true selves in the mirror. Older generations may well die clinging to their "cultural touchstones," despite the hollowness and inauthenticities of these artifacts. Still, as an ongoing society, we have a responsibility to the generations that come after us. If simply addressing the inaccuracies in a film that romanticizes the sale of human beings bothers you, it is long past time to take a good look at your racial biases, prejudices and core beliefs — and maybe find a new movie to watch.