African American Reactions to David O. Selznick’s Adaptation of Gone with the Wind in 1939, Causes and Context: Part III.

III. Gone with the Wind: From novel to script.

A. A controversial novel.

In 1935, however, somewhere in Atlanta, a book was about to be published, and its adaptation to the screen would challenge the fragile relationship between Hollywood and African-Americans, more so than any other movie since The Birth of a Nation in 1915. Written by the unknown, but soon to become famous Margaret Mitchell, this book was Gone with the Wind. In order to fully appreciate the reactions to its adaptation into a film, from the point of view of African-American audiences in particular, it is essential here to look back shortly at the beginning and reasons of the phenomenon. Therefore it is important to try and understand the reception the book itself got in its days. Born a Southerner in 1900, Margaret Mitchell was a reporter and a writer for the Atlanta

Margaret Mitchell, 1936

Journal. She had started writing her novel in 1926, and it had taken her roughly ten years to finish.[1] Though she did not intend for it to be published as she was writing it, in 1935 she had agreed to do so at the request of MacMillan Publishing.[2] The book came out in 1936, and within six months, it had already sold over one million copies.[3] As early as February of the same year, it had entered the New York Times bestseller list, and held the position for over forty weeks.[4] The book that captivated audiences, dealt with the economic and social struggle that the South had had to face during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. The embodiment of this struggle was at the center of the novel, in the person of Scarlett O’Hara. In late 1930’s depression-impacted America, it was not hard to understand why the book had reached such a level of success.[5] In a country that was barely recovering from the most serious economic crisis of its history,[6] and at a time when news from abroad dealt with the rise of various fascist regimes, therefore adding to the national depression the possibility of an upcoming war, the central theme of Gone with the Wind could not have failed to appeal to its readers. That theme, and in Margaret Mitchell’s own words, was that of survival.[7] However, and not unlike The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, the books of which Griffith’s notably racist The Birth of a Nation had been the screen adaptation, Gone with the Wind was truly the product of a biased Southern mind, with its inherent nostalgia for the old ways and the plantation myth. In fact, it is interesting to note here, as did Ruth Elizabeth Burks in her essay “Gone with the Wind: Black and White in Technicolor,” that Dixon himself had “quickly recognized a kinship with Gone with the Wind‘s author Margaret Mitchell and wrote to let her know ‘not only had she written the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper, you have given the world THE great American novel.’ Dixon was so enthralled by Gone with the Wind, in fact, that he intended to write a book-length study of Mitchell’s novel before he became incapacitated by a cerebral haemorrhage. Mitchell was particularly pleased to hear from Dixon, and to know that he admired her work since, as she acknowledged in her response to his letter of praise, ‘I was practically raised on your books and love them very much.’”[8] Margaret Mitchell’s vision of the Civil War and Recontruction period was not that of a historian, who would pay particular attention to historical facts, but it was that of a Southern woman, who wrote with her heart. As Aljean Harmetz stated in her book On the Road to Tara, “Margaret Mitchell always said that part of her concern about showing her manuscript to publishers was her awareness that the novel had a Southern point of view. The moral correctness of slavery, for example, was never questioned.”[9] As mentioned in the documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell had been “raised on stories of the Civil War, and the Southern gallantry. […] She grew up, steeped in the history of the old South.”[10] As a child, she had often wandered the streets of her hometown of Atlanta alongside her mother, and witnessed the last remnants of the lost grandeur of the South. The ruins of plantation estates that had been burnt to the ground during the fire of November 1864, and “where fine people had once lived,”[11] would remain in her memory forever, as tokens of irretrievable beauty and elegance. Yet, not everything the old South had once stood for was beauty and elegance. Mitchell’s vision, and her subsequent re-creation of the past, also encompassed much less romantic aspects of the Southern way of life and ideology, namely slavery, the supposed inferiority of black people, and of course, the “chivalrousness” and legitimacy of the Ku Klux Klan. Naturally, given that the novel, or at least its first part, took place in pre-Civil War Georgia, the presence of slaves was to be expected. However, not once did Margaret Mitchell express any reservations concerning the justification of slavery, as a base to ante bellum Southern civilization and prosperity. To that, can be added the fact that not only did she not criticize slavery, but she also resorted to the age-old argument that slaves were content with their fate, did not desire their freedom, and furthermore, that they would have been utterly lost without the guidance of their masters. This was exemplified by a piece of advice that Scarlett’s mother Ellen was said to have given her:

“‘Always remember, dear,’ Ellen had said, ‘you are responsible for the moral as well as the physical welfare of darkies God has entrusted to your care. You must realize that they are like children and must be guarded from themselves like children, and you must always set them a good example.’”[12]

As for the supposed inferiority of black people as a “race”, it was to be found at every step of the novel, whether it be gathered from a derogatory description, or openly expressed in the words of a character or another. A description of the main black character, Mammy, can be given here as an example of the first, as she was shown early in the book:

“Mammy emerged from the hall, a huge old woman with the small, shrewd eyes of an elephant. She was shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras. […] Mammy was black, but her code of conduct and her sense of pride were as high as or higher than those of her owners.”[13]

The comparison between Mammy and an elephant could seem to be the most offensive part of this description, when in fact the simple word “but”, used here to stress the opposition in the mind of the author/narrator between being black and yet, having high moral standards, created a much deeper and more revolting, disparaging effect. Very often in the book, can the reader find animal-like descriptions of the black characters, such as the canine picture that was made of Big Sam towards the end of the novel.[14] These descriptions undoubtedly reflected the position of most plantation owners of the period, and unquestionably also that of many Southerners of the 1930’s, that black people were little more than animals, to be tamed through slavery, or at least segregated through traditions and laws. To resume on the subject of the book itself, and to add to its crucial and intrinsic flaws, especially viewed from the African-American perspective, another means of depreciating black people was also to be found in Gone with the Wind. That is to say the frequent use of the word “Nigger”. If there ever was a delicate subject as far as Gone with the Wind was concerned, this one was it. Historically, the word “Nigger” had been considered by African-Americans as the most derogatory and hateful word ever used by white folks to refer to their people.[15] And yet, Margaret Mitchell did not boggle at using it freely, on countless occasions throughout the novel. But this particular point will be examined in more details, further in this post, when it will come to the alterations that David O. Selznick, the producer of the adaptation to the screen, deemed necessary to undertake in the making of his picture. Last, but certainly not least, when dealing with the book version of Gone with the Wind and some of its problematic themes, was the presence and glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. In an embarrassingly famous episode of the book, Scarlett found herself attacked in Shantytown, and nearly raped by a black man, who was described as a brute, and who stood for yet another familiar stereotype attributed to blackness, the big black buck.[16] This image of the black sexual predator, lusting over the White Woman, was already present in both The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation, as was seen before in this paper. The dangers of miscegenation had once again been thrown onto the reader as the ultimate threat to the white world. This threat echoed perfectly well in 1930’s American society, especially so in the South, where interactions between black men and white women, let alone sexual interactions, where not only prohibited, but also punished, more often than not, by pure and simple lynching. In his September 2000 essay “What was Jim Crow?”, Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at the Ferris State University, stated that “many Whites claimed that although lynchings were distasteful, they were necessary supplements to the criminal justice system because blacks were prone to violent crimes, especially the rapes of white women.”[17] He also added that between

Lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abraham Smith in Marion, Indiana (August 7, 1930)

1882 and 1951, 19.2 percent of the lynching victims had only been accused of raping white women, a figure that “has been inflated by the fact that a mob which makes the accusation of rape is secure from any further investigation”.[18] In consequence, it came as no surprise to the 1930’s reader, that in Gone with the Wind, the incident of Scarlett’s attack should have called for retaliation on the part of the white male characters, namely Frank Kennedy, Ashley Wilkes, and others. However, this retaliation was being taken care of, not only in the name of caring husband and friends, but also in the name of the whole of the South, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. The presence of the Klan was not implied, it was plainly and clearly expressed in the words of India Wilkes, Ashley’s sister:

“Of course, Mr. Kennedy is in the Klan, and Ashley, too, and all the men we know. […] They are men, aren’t they? And white men and Southerners. You should have been proud of him instead of making him sneak out as though it were something shameful.”[19]

And a little further, in the mouth of another character, a detailed explanation was given of what the Klan was to do in Shantytown:

“Because you went gallivantin’ this afternoon and got yoreself into trouble through yore own fault, Mr. Wilkes and Mr. Kennedy and the other men are out tonight to kill that thar nigger […] if they can catch [him], and wipe out that whole Shantytown settlement. And if what that Scallawag [Rhett Butler] said is true, the Yankees suspected sumpin’ or got wind somehow and they’ve sont out troops to lay for them. And our men have walked into a trap. And if what Butler said warn’t true, then he’s a spy and he is goin’ to turn them up to the Yankees and they’ll git kilt just the same. […] And if they ain’t kilt, then they’ll have to light out of here for Texas and lay low and maybe never come back.”[20]

Through the presence of the Ku Klux Klan, and its chivalrous depiction, achieved in no covert terms by Margaret Mitchell, it is only too easy to imagine what her opinion was when it came to the Klan. She did picture them as gallant men, flying to the rescue of damsels in distress, and determined to protect their honor from the supposed savagery of African-American men.

Nevertheless, and before getting to the adaptation of the novel into a film, and owing to the many disturbing factors that are to be found in Margaret Mitchell’s work, a very rapid overview of the different types of reactions that the release of the book gave rise to, will undoubtedly enlighten the 2005 audience, both of book and film. Once again, it goes almost without saying that the novel was an enormous commercial success.[21] As far as most literary critics were concerned, and referring to James and Brown’s Book Review Digest of 1937,[22] as it is cited by W. Bernard Lukenbill in his essay entitled “Marketing Gone with the Wind in an Age of Social Conflict”, the book was widely acclaimed in the literary press of the time. Donald Adams, in the New York Times Book Review, called it “the best Civil War novel that has yet been written.”[23]

Original 1936 cover for the MacMillan Company

The American people absolutely loved it, perhaps, as was seen earlier, because the world they lived in was so un-romantic, and they wanted to escape the harsh reality of unemployment, depression, and confusion abroad. All the same, having said all that, it would be too naive to assume that only positive reactions to the book existed. Even without going in details into negative literary critics, some of which categorized the novel as a social phenomenon, if not a literary one,[24] the most vehement diatribe unquestionably, and logically enough, came from the African-American community, as well as those sympathetic to their cause. Malcolm Cowley, the literary editor of The New Republic, complained in the September 15, 1936 issue that “Gone with the Wind is an encyclopaedia of the plantation legend […] false in part and silly in part and vicious in its general effect on Southern life today.”[25] In 1937, as cited by Gary S. Dalkin in his “Retrospective: Gone with the Wind”, The Journal of Negro Life wrote that “the general outline of the history is true, but Miss Mitchell’s presentation in unwarrantedly biased. In her array of ‘Mammies’, ‘Cookies’, ‘Porks’ and ‘Sams’ one only sees ebony black Negroes who had been docile and childlike as slaves, suddenly become impudent and vicious as ‘free issue’ Negroes. […] The book is no doubt honestly written, but at the same time it is written with a passionate sectional and racial bias.”[26] Also in 1937, in The Crisis, the monthly journal of the NAACP, in an acerbic article entitled “Not Gone with the Wind”, George S. Schuyler had written:

Gone with the Wind is much too long, is cluttered with trivia and inconsequentialities, with special pleading, useless descriptions, wooden characters who jump like automatons; but it is eminently readable, bolsters Southern white ego, is an effective argument against according the Negro his citizenship rights and privileges and sings Hallelujah for white supremacy. It WOULD be a best seller. […] Margaret Mitchell’s 1037-page novel may be a Pulitzer Prize to white America but it is just another Rebel propaganda tract to the colored citizen who knows our national history.”

Yet, the most remarkable of these critical reviews of the novel was to be published, as the actual shooting of the filmed version of Gone with the Wind was just beginning. In its editorial of February 9, 1939, the African-American newspaper The Los Angeles Sentinel blasted the book for being:

“[…] a novel that stinks with the preachment of racial inferiority. In its pages are found the usual age-old slanders: that Negroes did not want their freedom and that it had to be forced upon them; that all except a few Uncle Tom Negroes were rapists and murderers; that Negro legislators of Reconstruction were corrupt and dishonest; that the Civil War was all a mistake; and that Negroes were inferiors, and little less than brutes.”[28]

Nevertheless, Margaret Mitchell had always denied ever intending African-Americans any offence. Yet, in her very response to critics that she was indeed a racist, she had displayed the very same paternalist and biased attitude that D. W. Griffith had displayed, more than twenty years before, when responding to the same critics being made against The Birth of a Nation. She wrote:

“The colored people I know here in Atlanta had nothing but nice things to say, especially the older ones. Shortly after the book came out, the Radical and Communist publications, both black and white, began to hammer, but all they could say was that the book was ‘an insult to the Race.’ For two years they could not think up any reason why. I asked a number of Negroes and they replied that they did not know either but guessed it was some Yankee notion. The Radical press tried to use Gone with the Wind as a whip to drive the Southern Negroes into the Communist Party somewhat in the same manner that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was used to recruit Abolitionists. Of course, you know how happy it made me to have the Radical publications dislike Gone with the Wind. I couldn’t have held up my head if they had liked it, but the Negro angle bothered me, for Heaven knows I had and have no intention of ‘insulting the Race’. Recently the Negro press has discovered the way in which they have been insulted. It is because I had various characters use the term ‘Nigger’ and ‘Darkey’. […] Regardless of the fact that they call each other ‘Nigger’ today and regardless of the fact that nice people in ante bellum days called them ‘Darkies,’ these papers are in a fine frenzy. […]

I have had enough twisted and erroneous and insulting things written about me and Gone with the Wind to make me sore on the whole Negro race if I were sensitive or a fool. But I do not intend to let any number of troublemaking Professional Negroes change my feelings toward the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and respect.”[29]

There was no doubt that Mitchell thought that she had only been faithful to the historical truth and reality of the period she recounted in her book. Being who she was, and especially having been raised the way that she had been, and though this was hardly an excuse, if merely an explanation, she could not have been expected to have thought any differently. She did not understand the feelings of the African-American community towards her book. Yet, very soon, these hostile feelings would not only limit themselves to the existence of the novel, but extend to the idea of a screen version of Mitchell’s story.

B. David O. Selznick’s vision.

For of course, there would be a screen version of Gone with the Wind. And David O. Selznick, a newly independent Hollywood producer would be the heart and soul of this movie version. But who was David O. Selznick and how did he get to become the producer of this adaptation? First of all, it is worth noting that, unlike what many people tend to imagine, the idea of turning the novel into a motion picture had not been born only once the book had revealed itself to be a bestseller. It had already entered someone’s mind, as early as the Spring of 1936, even before it was released. That someone was Katherine “Kay” Brown, who happened to work as a story editor for Selznick International Pictures in New York.[30] Annie Laurie Williams, who represented MacMillan and Company for the rights of Gone with the Wind,[31] had come over to see Kay Brown one month before the book was published, in order to try and sell her the picture rights to Mitchell’s novel. In her own words, Brown stated: “So I read the book and thought it was absolutely wonderful. And I worked, as we all know, for David O. Selznick, and I was responsible for calling to his attention important material. So I called it to his attention.”[32] On May 20, she sent him a message on the company teletype,[33] and told him that she was sending him the galley proofs and a synopsis of a brand new novel, and to that she added: “I beg, urge, coax and plead with you to read this at once. I know that after you read the book you will drop everything and buy it.”[34] And yet, in a memo dated May 25, 1936, and addressed to Kay Brown, David O. Selznick replied:

“Have gone over and carefully thought about Gone with the Wind. Think it is fine story and I understand your feeling about it. […] To pay a large price for it in […] the further hope book will have tremendous sales is, I feel, unwarranted. […] I do not feel we can take such a gamble. If it is not purchased immediately then I know you will watch its sales carefully, and if it threatens to become [a bestseller]… then we presumably will be in as close touch as any other company, but if it is bought in interim, we must have no regrets. […] Most grateful for your interest and early action on this and do not want discourage you from bringing to our attention this forcibly any new or old story which you run across, and therefore most sorry to have to say no in face of your enthusiasm for this story.”[35]

If it had not been for the timely intervention of John Hay “Jock” Whitney, who was one of Selznick’s main financial backers, and chairman of the board at Selznick International Pictures,[36] and who had told Kay Brown to “keep at him [Selznick], if he doesn’t buy the book, I will,”[37] Selznick may never have bought it. He wrote:

“When I hesitated about paying $50,000 for a novel about the Civil War – the largest price ever paid for a book that was not even established as a success – Jock Whitney wired me that if I didn’t buy it for Selznick International, he would buy it , and hold it for the company if I wanted it. This was all the encouragement I needed, and rather than have Jock have the last laugh on me, we went ahead and bought Gone with the Wind. I then went to Hawaii on vacation and read the novel on board ship.”[38]

And so history was on its way. Little did Selznick imagine that for millions in the future, he would forever be “the man who produced Gone with the Wind.” Born on May 10, 1902, David O. Selznick was the son of a Jewish emigrant from

David O Selznick and his brother Myron, 1937

Kiev, who had changed his name from Zeleznick to Selznick on arrival to America.[39] Lewis J. Selznick had been a motion picture pioneer,[40] who had been ruined by what his sons, David and Myron, had felt was the excessive power of the studios.[41] David, who had started to work in the movie business alongside his father when he was still very young, had always pursued the dream of being his own boss. “I simply had to fulfil my ambitions of starting my own company. It has always been an obsession of mine, unquestionably inherited from my father.”[42] Independence from the studios seemed to him as the best way of achieving control over his professional life, as well as his artistic aspirations as a producer. After working for Paramount from 1928 to 1931,[43] he had then worked for RKO from 1931 to 1933,[44],and had gone to work at MGM from 1933 to 1935,[45] for Louis B. Mayer, whose daughter Irene he had married in 1930. Still looking for independence, however, he had resolved to start his own company, Selznick International Pictures. He resigned from MGM in the summer of 1935, as can be read in a memo he had addressed to Nicholas Schenck, president of Loew’s, the conglomerate that owned MGM: [46]

“I have decided that today is my last opportunity to try the things I have wanted to do all my life – and that whatever the cost to me, I must have my fling or regret it all my life.

I have weighed everything very carefully. […] The amount of money I would definitely receive from MGM probably has few parallels in all American industry; […] the freedom that I have had here, and presumably would continue to have, is unknown elsewhere in the business; […] the independence from financial worry in making pictures is something I may never have again; […] I have weighed and weighed – but I am at a crossroads where a sign hangs high: ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.’…

I have no desire to go to work for anyone else. […] But what I must do is get started on my own and try my wings, and once and for all find out whether all by myself I cannot find what I am looking for. […] I am prepared to do with less money if need be […] in order to be absolute master from day to day and week to week and year to year of my instincts, my whims, my occasional desire to loaf, my time, and my destiny.”[47]

Independence from the major studios appeared to Selznick to be an essential element of artistic freedom. He felt this latitude was necessary, in general, and had the intuition that it would be true, especially in the case of his adaptation of Gone with the Wind: “I went ahead and made Gone with the Wind according to my own lights. I was told by the most important people in the business that no independent company could hope to achieve the result that I was after, and I replied, only an independent company could hope to achieve such a result, and that it was impossible in a factory.”[48]

Then how would Selznick’s independence from the major studios, his vision of the world in general, and movie making in particular, shape the adaptation from book to film? In order to set the adaptation of the novel in motion, and to determine the artistic approach to the story, the first step that Selznick had had to take was to find a script writer who would be worthy of the task. He had felt confident that Sydney Howard would be up to it.[49]

Sydney Howard, 1936

The fact that Howard was also a free-lancer, not hampered by any studio contract, certainly had an appeal to Selznick, as well, of course, as his talent as a writer. By the time it had come to the writing of a script version of the novel, the book had eventually reached the status of bestseller, and Margaret Mitchell had become a celebrity. As soon as the information had leaked out that he was going to undertake the adaptation of Gone with the Wind, Selznick had tried to ensure Mitchell’s participation to the movie. He wanted to reassure the public that they would not be betrayed by a poor version of the story they had so loved. Just the same, Mitchell had remained firm in her refusal of his offer: “I wrote the book, and that is all. My connection to the motion picture ended when I signed the contract selling the film rights. I’ve sold them to you lock, stock, and barrels. From that day forward, they have been yours to do what it is you please.”[50] And further: “When I sold the book to the Selznick Company, I made it very plain that I would have nothing whatsoever to do with the picture, nothing about additional dialogue, nothing about advising on backgrounds, costumes, continuity. They offered me money to go to Hollywood to write additional dialogue, etc. And I refused. I sold the book on that understanding.”[51] Selznick finally gave up the idea. As to who the director of the movie would be, at first Selznick trusted his friend George Cukor to hold the part ideally.[52] Interestingly enough, though, in a memo dated January 5, 1937, David O. Selznick mentioned the possibility that had occurred to him to associate to Cukor, another director, who would be responsible for a second filming unit for the most historically charged scenes of the movie. And that director, whom Selznick was thinking of, was no other than The Birth of a Nation‘s D. W. Griffith: “Even more extensive than the second unit work on [The Prisoner of] Zenda is the work on Gone with the Wind, which requires a man really capable, literate, and with a respect for research to re-create, in combination with Cukor, the evacuation of Atlanta and other episodes of the war and Reconstruction period. I have even thought about […] D. W. Griffith for this job.”[53] This could be seen, if needed, as evidence that Griffith was still regarded by his peers, as an artist who could be trusted to render the authenticity of historical facts, in spite of past criticism that he had been inaccurate and biased in his re-creation of the Reconstruction period in The Birth of a Nation. But the fact that he had thought of hiring Griffith for a second unit – which he eventually ended up not doing – should not be seen as a sign that Selznick was indifferent to the opinion of the African-American community, who had so loathed Griffith for his biased view of history. As a matter of fact, several elements tend to prove that indeed, he cared about the African-American community, and did not wish to offend them in any way. These very same elements also show that he was aware of the controversial character of the novel he was adapting, and that he would place special emphasis on “correcting” certain aspects of the book, which had been deservedly deemed offensive by the African-American community. In a famous memo dated January 6, 1937, and addressed to Sydney Howard, Selznick had discussed a rough draft of the story which Sydney had sent him, and the possibility of cutting certain episodes from the final version of the story:

“Here we come to a very touching point and I am hopeful that you share my feelings on it. I have already discussed it with George [Cukor] and he agrees – but then, our feelings are prejudiced. I refer to the Ku Klux Klan. I personally feel quite strongly that we should cut out the Klan entirely. […] (I, for one, have no desire to produce any anti-Negro film. […] 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.) Furthermore, there is nothing in the story that necessarily needs the Klan. The revenge for the attempted attack can very easily be identical to what it is without their being members of the 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.

I do hope that you will agree with me on this omission of what might come out as an unintentional advertisement for intolerant societies in these fascist-ridden times…”[54]

And then, in yet another memo, addressed this time to Jock Whitney:

“Dear Jock, I have gone to extremes in the preparation […] of the picture, to avoid any deregatory representation of the Negroes as a race, or as individuals, and to eliminate the major things in the story which were apparently found offensive by Negroes in the Margaret Mitchell’s book. I feel so keenly about what is happening to the Jews of the world, that I cannot help but sympathize with the Negroes and their fears about material, which they regard as insulting and damaging.”[55]

Selznick was very anxious to try and distance himself from the prejudiced point of view adopted by Mitchell. As expressed in both memos cited here, the fact that Selznick was indeed Jewish, seems to have played a particularly important role in his attitude towards the African-American community. In the words of Aljean Harmetz, “what worried Selznick most during those early weeks of production was that there might be ‘repercussions not simply on the picture, and not simply upon the company and upon me personally, but on the Jews of America as a whole…’”[56] Selznick’s own fears concerning the possible repercussions on the American Jewish community as a whole, may not only have been brought about by his own reflexion, but also by the warnings that came to him, directly from members of his own community. In an article entitled “Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s racial politics,” Leonard J. Leff reported that Selznick International had received numerous letters of protest because of their prospective adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel. Notably “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 O. Selznick, like most of his Hollywood peers, was a Jew.”[57] Here, a parallel can be drawn between the African-American community and the Jewish community. In his book Blackface, White Noise, Michael Rogin initiated that parallel,[58] and noted that before coming to America, the Jewish community was not considered as white in Europe, and was prejudiced against in just the same fashion as the African-American community was, in the United States:

“As anti-Semitism racialized Jews in Europe, […] European immigrants to the United States were coming under the banner of a new racial invention: whiteness. ‘No one was white before he or she came to America,’ wrote James Baldwin.[59] ‘It took generations and a vast amount of coercion before this became a white country,’ Baldwin explained. ‘Jews came here from countries where they were not white, and they came here in part because they were not white… Everyone who got here, and paid the price of the ticket, the price was to become white.’ The differentiation of white immigrant workers from colored chattel, a process organic to the creation of race-based slavery at the origins of the United States, was repeated for the waves of European immigrants that came to these shores after slavery had come to an end.”

He went on to add that “immigrant Jews […] led the fight for civil rights. […] Jewish activists were distinctively allied with African-Americans in the struggle for racial equality.”[60] And further again:

“In US politics as in culture, in the fight for equal rights as in melting-pot entertainment, many Jews forged a special relationship to African-Americans. Jews who escaped from European anti-Semitism had a stake in believing both that the United States offered freedom to all and that they themselves were not going to become the central target of American racism, that they were not black. Many Jews treated American freedom not as a given, however, but as something to be achieved in the struggle against all forms of discrimination. Jews opposed racial prejudice in greater numbers, proportionately, than did any other white ethnic group.

[…] From one point of view, […] politically oriented Jews identified with African-Americans as a persecuted, diaspora people.”[61]

It is not very hard to imagine how a Jewish David O. Selznick could have identified with the repulsion felt by African-Americans when it came to the racism of the book, and especially the depiction of the retaliation by the Ku Klux Klan. This was all the more true as Selznick was not insensitive to the fate of German Jews, who had suffered the attacks of the Nazi during the infamous Kristallnacht, or Crystal Night, on the night of November 9-10, 1937. Indeed, as Lukenbill noted, “Selznick was a socially sensitive man. Being Jewish, he was aware of the problems which Jews were experiencing in Germany and Austria, and he could make a logical connection between their plight and the historic plight of slavery and the role which African-Americans were forced to play in prewar […] America.”[62] At this point, it is also important to stress, as was already done earlier, that the Klan of the Reconstruction period, was not the same as that which had started to rise again in 1915. The second Ku Klux Klan was not only hostile toward black people, as its forerunner had been, but it was also utterly biased against the Jewish community, Roman Catholics, foreigners in general, and organized labour. In the words of David O. Selznick himself : “It would be difficult, if not impossible, to clarify for audiences the difference between the old Klan and the Klan of our times. (A year or so ago, I refused to consider remaking The Birth of a Nation, largely for this reason).”[63] This short digression was necessary in order to understand some aspects of David O. Selznick’s attitude concerning the removal of the Klan from the filmed version of Gone with the Wind. This can also help understand, as will be seen later, his rejection of the word “Nigger”, the presence of which had so infuriated the African-American public, when the book had been published. Being his own boss at Selznick International Pictures, he benefitted from a total latitude in matters of artistic choices. This allowed him to modify, or purely and simply delete, offensive bits of the script. The angle from which he wanted to tackle the story, was entirely up to him, especially since Margaret Mitchell wanted nothing to do with the adaptation of her book on screen.

C. African-American reactions to the perspective of an adaptation of the novel.

But what were the reactions of the African-American community when it came to the perspective of a filmed version of Gone with the Wind? Though it is true that David O. Selznick was a reasonably sensitive man, it would be utterly naive to assume that the attention he paid to the black issues in the film had been born entirely from a desire to do good, morally speaking. Selznick was a business man, of the late 1930’s. He had to protect his investment. In order to make sure that he would not be alienating himself a portion of the public potential, he needed to address the various critics that the African-American community was making against his project. He called these issues, “the Negro problem”.[64] When it came to the African-American community, and more generally to the left wing press of the country, Selznick was largely criticized for attempting to adapt such a biased and racist novel. As a matter of fact, and as Leonard J. Leff reported, as early as 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.’ […] 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 conductive to race prejudice.’”[65]

As can be seen in W. Bernard Lukenbill’s essay, Selznick was faced with the need to market his film to both white and black audiences. Therefore, he had to juggle with what would seem acceptable to both communities, which was not an easy thing to do. The NAACP tried to make the critics and demands of its own community known:

“Walter White, then head of the NAACP,

Walter White, chief secretary of the NAACP (1929-1955)

in a June 26, 1938 letter to Selznick, wrote that the book is ‘so essentially superficial and false in its emphases that it will require almost incredible effort to make a film from the novel which would not be both hurtful and inaccurate pictures of the Reconstruction era.’ He goes on to write: ‘Our interest is solely that of the accuracy according to the most rigid standards of historical truth.’ He reminded Selznick that most historical treatments of the period give a distorted and essentially vicious treatment of the African-American.”[66]

To these harsh critics, “Selznick responded warmly. He, too, was a member of a persecuted race, he told White, and was sensitive to minority peoples’ opinions.”[67] In its editorial “Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better”, which has already been cited earlier, The Los Angeles Sentinel argued that “Hollywood is hard at work making one of the most vicious anti-Negro pictures of its long, and as far as Negroes are concerned, dishonorable career. David Selznick is the producer. The picture is Gone with the Wind, a movie version of a novel that stinks with the preachment of racial inferiority.”[68] Furthermore, the Los Angeles-based newspaper “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.’”[69] Undoubtedly, and understandably, the African-American community was alarmed at the prospect of a movie, which in their mind, would be only too reminiscent of the infamous Birth of a Nation. The echoes of Griffith’s film were still very much alive in the mind of the black audiences. They knew that Margaret Mitchell’s novel contained some of the demeaning clichés, which they had always fought against. Indeed, many members of the African-American community feared that the movie version of Gone with the Wind would be “a sequel to The Birth of a Nation because of its reported allegiance to Mitchell’s novel.”[70] The mere fact that African-Americans would be depicted as slaves was, however, not the main concern when it came to the adaptation of the book. In Donald Bogle’s words: “The problem with Civil War spectacles has never been that they presented Negroes as slaves – for how else could they be depicted? – but that the films have humiliated and debased them far beyond the callings of the script. Gone with the Wind was often criticized because the slaves were not shown taking up rifles against their former masters.”[71] As soon as he had had endeavoured to make his own version of Gone with the Wind, David O. Selznick had started to receive letters after letters from African-American groups, or individuals. He could not help but be aware of the scrutiny he would be under as producer of the film. In his essay on the African-American press’s reception of Gone with the Wind, James F. Tracy referred to the fact that one of the main factors that contributed to the final approach of the black characters in the film, was indeed the “outspokenness and activism of the African-Americans themselves.”[72] As a matter of fact, Walter White of the NAACP was not the only one to complain to Selznick about the pernicious content of the story. In his editorial, dated February 4, 1939, Earl J. Morris, who was the motion picture editor of the African-American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, condemned the fact that the word “Nigger” had been used in the book, as it would probably be used in the movie version as well. He had then urged his readers to write to Selznick and his staff, in order to prevent the word from appearing in the motion picture.[73] As Leonard J. Leff noted, “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.”[74] Furthermore, only a few days before the actual start of the shooting of the film, Joseph Breen, who was the administrator of the Production Code,

Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration (1934-1954)

“warned Selznick – not for the first time – that ‘this word [Nigger] is highly offensive to Negroes throughout the United States and will be quite forcefully resented by them.’ In a memorandum written for his files on February 9, Breen expressed relief that Selznick had agreed not to use the word. Selznick had been shaken by hundreds of letters from individual Negroes and Negro organizations and by attacks in Negro newspapers. For a year, Margaret Mitchell’s 1,037 page novel had been Selznick’s bible. He had sent memo after memo telling his screenwriters, his set designers, and his directors to look for answers in what he always called ‘the book’. And now he was discovering that ‘the book’ – with the stalwart Ku Klux Klan defending white womanhood and former slaves who were unhappy at being freed and still devoted to their masters – infuriated Negroes.”[75]

As Ruth Elizabeth Burks noted: “While the NAACP did not protest as vehemently against Gone with the Wind as it had, under W. E. B. Du Bois’s leadership, rallied against The Birth of a Nation (in part, because the NAACP had begun to unravel in 1935 when Du Bois resigned because of major differences of opinion with its new secretary Walter White), the [prospect of the] release of Gone with the Wind did spark severe opposition from the left as well as from the National Negro Congress and other black organizations.”[76] Selznick finally removed the word “Nigger” from the script, “based as much on the advice from Joseph Breen at the Hays Office, who was worried that angry blacks would throw bricks at the screen as had happened previously when that epithet was used, as on his desire to comply with black leaders who initially made the request.”[77] Marcella Rabwin, who was David O. Selznick’s secretary at the time, recalled that “there was a very difficult period with the black press. They had threatened a boycott of the film because they were afraid of ‘Uncle Tomism’ and the depiction of the slaves.”[78] Though the depiction of slaves was unavoidable, given the period in which the action of the movie was to take place, the artistic direction however, and the angle from which the black characters would be depicted, were entirely up to Selznick and Howard.

TO BE CONTINUED

(Next: IV. African-American actors and the making of the film; V. African-American reactions to the film itself, or how to forget The Birth of a Nation.)


[1] Thomson, David. Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1992, p. 196.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Edwards, Anne. The Road to Tara: The Life of Margaret Mitchell. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1983, p. 247.

[4] Lukenbill, W. Bernard. « Marketing Gone with the Wind in an Age of Social Conflict ». The Acquisition Librarian. Volume 14. Issue 28. 2002, p. 199.

[5] Stokes, Melvyn. « Crises in History and the Response to Them as Illustrated in The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind« . La Licorne n°36. Université de Poitiers. 1996, pp. 66-77.

[6] Rice, Arnold S. and John A. Krout. United States History from 1865. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991, p. 224.

[7] Vertrees, Alan David. Selznick’s Vision: Gone with the Wind and Hollywood Filmmaking. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997, p. 25.

[8] Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. « Gone with the Wind: Black and White in Technicolor ». Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 21. Number 1. January/February/March 2004, p. 55.

[9] Harmetz, Aljean. On the Road to Tara: the Making of Gone with the Wind. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated, 1996, p. 144.

[10] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind. David Hinton – Director: L. Jeffrey Selznick – Producer; MGM/UA Home Entertainment, 1988, 8’42.

[11] Ibid, 8’55.

[12] Mitchell, Margaret. Gone with the Wind. New York: Warner Books, 1993, [The MacMillan Company, 1936], p. 465.

[13] Ibid, p. 25.

[14] Ibid, p. 771.

[15] Kennedy, Randall. Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2002.

[16] Mitchell, op. cit., p. 780.

[17] Pilgrim, David. « What Was Jim Crow? ». Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. September 2000.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Mitchell, op. cit., p. 790.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Vertrees, op. cit., pp. 23-24.

[22] James, M. M. And D. Brown, eds.. The Book Review Digest: Thirty-Second Annual Cumulation, March 1936 to February 1937 Inclusive, Vol. A-Q, New York: H. W. Wilson, 1937, as cited in Lukenbill, op. cit., p. 199.

[23] Adams, Donald. The New York Times Book Review, as cited in Thomson, op. cit., p. 216.

[24] DeVoto, Bernard. « Fiction Fights the Civil War ». Saturday Review of Literature. January 1938.

[25] Cowley, Malcolm. The New Republic. September 15, 1936, as cited in Vertrees, op. cit., p. 37.

[26] The Journal of Negro Life, 1937, as cited in Dalkin, Gary S.. « Retrospective: Gone with the Wind« . Amazon Retrospective.

[27] Schuyler, George S.. « Not Gone with the Wind« . Crisis. July 1937. Volume 44. Issue 7. Pages 205-206, as cited in Burks, op. cit., p. 53 and 62.

[28] « Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better », The Los Angeles Sentinel. February 9, 1939, as cited in The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 52’49.

[29] Mitchell, Margaret. Letters, pp. 273-274, as cited in Burks, op. cit., pp. 59-60.

[30] Molt, Cynthia Marylee. Gone with the Wind on Film: A Complete Reference. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1990, p. 60.

[31] Ibid, p. 64.

[32] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 11’10.

[33] Thomson, op. cit., p. 212.

[34] Thomas, Bob. Selznick, the Man who Produced Gone with the Wind. Beverly Hills: New Millennium Press, 2001, p. 123.

[35] Behlmer, Rudy, ed.. Memo from David O. Selznick. New York: Modern Library & Random House Ltd., 2000, pp. 152-153.

[36] Molt, op. cit., p. 64.

[37] Thomas, op. cit., p. 128.

[38] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 151.

[39] Thomas, op. cit., p. 5.

[40] Behrman, S. N.. « David O. Selznick in Person », as cited in Behlmer, op. cit., xxii.

[41] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 6’50.

[42] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 103.

[43] Ibid, p. 13.

[44] Ibid, p. 41.

[45] Ibid, p. 59.

[46] Vertrees, op. cit., p. 7.

[47] Behlmer, op. cit., pp. 89-90.

[48] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 6’25.

[49] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 155.

[50] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 15’40.

[51] Thomson, op. cit., p. 221.

[52] Ibid, p. 219.

[53] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 158.

[54] Ibid, p. 162.

[55] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 53’05.

[56] Harmetz, op. cit., p. 144.

[57] Leff, Leonard J.. « Gone with the Wind and Hollywood’s Racial Politics ». The Atlantic Monthly. Volume 284. Number 6. December 1999.

[58] Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 12.

[59] Baldwin, James. « On Being ‘White’ and Other Lies ». Essence, April 1984, pp. 90-92, as cited in Rogin, op. cit., p. 12.

[60] Rogin, op. cit., p. 16.

[61] Ibid, p. 66.

[62] Lukenbill, op. cit., p. 206.

[63] Behlmer, op. cit., p. 162.

[64] Leff, Leonard J.. « David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind: The Negro Problem ». Georgia Review. Issue 38. Spring 1984.

[65] Leff, 1999, op. cit..

[66] Lukenbill, op. cit., p. 201.

[67] Leff, 1999, op. cit..

[68] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 52’49.

[69] « Hollywood Goes Hitler One Better », The Los Angeles Sentinel. February 9, 1939, as cited in Leff, op. cit., 1999.

[70] Tracy, James F.. « Revisiting a Polysemic Text: The African-American Press’s Reception of Gone with the Wind« . Mass Communication and Society. November 2001. Volume 4. Number 4, p. 424.

[71] Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1991, [1973], p. 88.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Lukenbill, op. cit., pp. 201-202.

[74] Leff, 1999, op. cit..

[75] Harmetz, op. cit., p. 144.

[76] Burks, op. cit., p 56.

[77] Ibid, p. 64.

[78] The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind, op. cit., 52’40.

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African American Reactions to David O. Selznick’s Adaptation of Gone with the Wind in 1939, Causes and Context: Part II.

II. African-American stereotypes in Hollywood after The Birth of a Nation.

A. Classic stereotypes and African-American resistance.

Through Hollywood and the ever-growing number of films that were to be made after The Birth of a Nation, African-Americans would increasingly have to deal with the imagery of “blackness” that the mainstream movie industry would convey for decades. This imagery would more often than not be made of enduring stereotypes, most of which had been originally coined by The Birth of a Nation, such as slaves, servants, mammies, and bucks. But to those, would be added a long string of jazz singers and vaudeville characters, as will be seen next.

In the book White Screens, Black Images, James Snead argued that

“onscreen and off, the history that Westerner culture has made typically denies blacks and black skin of historical references, except as former slaves or savages. […] The problem is that, especially in film, stereotypes and codes insulate themselves from historical change, or actual counter-examples in the real world. Caricatures breed more caricatures, or metamorphose into others, but remain in place.”[1]

In “Mammy Dearest”, Frank Diller commented on this assumption:

“The roles of slave or savage are socially acceptable to whites and so, they are reflected in the art that the majority produces. […] African-Americans were relegated to a limited number of roles in the culture of the early twentieth century. These depictions are not only representative of the social limitations of the minority but their adherence to such depictions actually enforces them. […] Snead believes the social acceptance of these African-American mythologies establishes the nature of these roles and makes them that much more difficult to change later.”[2]

At this point indeed, and before a more careful analysis to be conducted further on, it is interesting to note that within the stereotyped roles performed by African-American actors in mainstream Hollywood films, lies a somewhat unsettling paradox, which shall be discussed throughout this essay. Even if the presence of actual African-American actors in movies of the period can be seen in retrospect as an advancement for the African-American community in general, it was not necessarily seen as such back then. African-American actors were not always well thought of in their own community. The fact that they agreed to be part of a white scheme that aimed at portraying black people only as former slaves or some other demeaning cliché, was seen as offensive by some amongst the African-American community. In the article “The Woman Who Was Mammy”, Dibri L. Beavers acknowledged that resentment:

“The NAACP had been at war with Hollywood almost since the organization’s inception, in 1909. It had protested D. W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation for its racist stereotypes, and had since then continually pressured the major studios to put more positive black images on the screen. But its harshest criticism was reserved for the black actors and actresses who played roles the organization considered demeaning.”[3]

These actors and actresses played submissive roles, and yet they brought a new dignity to characters that had previously been portrayed by blackfaced actors, which had added ridicule to contempt. Their mere presence was a statement that seemed to shout “We Exist” to the face of a white society. Their work could be described as “work against the odds to claim the I”, in the words of Michelle Cliff.[4] And yet, they were often criticized for endorsing and perpetuating stereotypes that would eventually take years to overcome. Of course, it would have been impossible for them to hope to work in Hollywood, had they not been ready to accept these types of roles. In her essay “Race, Gender, Psychoanalysis in Forties Film”, Michele Wallace expressed her awareness of this paradox:

“The question remains of how Black […] viewers regarded the

Hattie McDaniel

Butterfly McQueens and the Hattie McDaniels that occasionally and awkwardly (veritable flies in the buttermilk) appeared in these films. As a child, I suppose I rebelled against identification with McDaniel and McQueen, but as an adult I learned that [McQueen’s] career had been greatly diminished by her unwillingness to continue to play such roles as Prissy in Gone with the Wind. […]

Butterfly McQueen

Given the narrow restrictions on the roles that Black actresses could play, […] either maids or entertainers, McDaniel excelled at her craft. […] As an adult, as a woman, as a Black woman and a feminist, I [now] strongly identify with both the restrictions McDaniel and McQueen faced, and their efforts to surmount them.”[5]

Furthermore, had they come accross a more realistic and less disparaging kind of roles, then the white community would in turn have been indignant and vindictive. “The authentic black actors were in roles of ignorant, and neutral people. In the first years of the Modern Age, black actors were often beaten and threatened if they assumed roles that suggested equality.”[6] To put it in a nutshell, in mainstream Hollywood, African-American characters seemed forever destined to be portrayed as inferior to the White. They were devoid of any actual social depth. The fame that the actors who played them might receive could not be dreamt to compare with that of movie stars such as Lilian Gish, Douglas Fairbanks or Mary Pickford, who benefitted from the mere fact that they were white in a white Hollywood.

How then could African-American actors hope to find interesting, challenging and somewhat more lifelike roles? In order to conceive of the whole spectrum of movie-making and the place of African-Americans in the early 1920’s, and so to reach 1939 and the release of Gone with the Wind, a digression needs to be made here. In this paper, several times already have the expressions “mainstream Hollywood” or “mainstream movie industry” been used. The word “mainstream” here essentially refers to the fact that the vast majority of films made by the Hollywood studios, were mostly intended for the vast majority of their American audience, that is to say white people. However, and as was shown earlier here through the example of Charles Foster, a countercurrent was emerging in the form of a parallel movie circuit. The major steps towards a specifically African-American cinema arose out of a will to oppose such a demonstration of white chauvinism that a movie like The Birth of a Nation stood for. The overwhelming negative impact that the film had had on the African-American community had created a need for movies made by and mostly for African-Americans. And indeed, as early as 1915, there was the formation of the Independent African-American Filmakers who “sought their own financing in order to produce films with more positive images of Blacks.”[7] For instance, on May 24, 1916, the first movie company controlled by African-American filmmakers was born. It was the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.[8] It had been created by African-American actor Noble Johnson and his brother George. The African-American Registry stated that:

“The first Lincoln production was a drama entitled The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition in 1916. The second Lincoln

Original poster for The Realization of a Negro's Ambition, Lincoln Motion Picture Company, 1916.

production was entitled A Trooper of Troop K in 1917, which dealt with a massacre of black troops in the Army’s 10th Cavalry during the American operation against Mexican bandits and revolutionaries in 1916. Although the Johnson brothers wanted the films to play to wider audiences, they were mostly booked in special locations at churches and schools and the few ‘Colored Only’ theaters in America. By 1920 the Lincoln had completed five films including A Man’s Duty in 1919, but it proved to be a minor business operation. […] Lincoln productions accepted an offer for financial backing by a white investor, P. H. Updike, in Los Angeles. […] In October 1921, Lincoln began production of their film By Right of Birth. […] Although Blacks managed the Lincoln Film Company, Updike had doubts about By Right of Birth as a moneymaking proposition.”[9] 

In his overview of “African-Americans in Motion Pictures,” Professor Melvin R. Sylvester of the University of Long Island, wrote about By Right of Birth, that it “was another one of the ‘hope for success’ movies produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company. It covered the portrayal of black life featuring successful middle-class African-Americans.”[10] He also added that the Lincoln Motion Picture Company “wanted to produce movies which presented Blacks in [their] everyday life, a human being with human inclination and one of talent and intellect.” But however good the intentions of the Johnson brothers may have been, the film failed to be a real commercial success. Fortunately, not all independent ventures of African-American filmmakers turned out short-lived and forgotten. Movies made by and for African-Americans were called “race movies”. Phyllis C. Benton, a specialist in all-black cast and Race Movies, recalls: “Hundred of these ‘Race Movies’ were made in the silent period, mostly very low budget. But since they were free from the Hollywood system and rarely even noticed by the critics these films could explore cutting social and racial issues that the major studios would never touch. More importantly, they were the only films in which African-American audiences could see members of their race portrayed as intelligent and heroic rather than the crooks and lazy bums they were too often portrayed as.”[11] In “Close Up in Black: African-American Film Posters” from the Smithonian Center for African-American History and Culture and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the exhibition details describe:

“During the industry’s infancy, pioneering African American film companies, such as Lincoln Motion Picture Company and Micheaux Film Corporation, proved the need for and viability of black cinema. These ‘race movies’ offered African Americans starring roles in westerns, comedies, musicals, mysteries, melodramas, and crime films. They conveyed messages of racial uplift, and let black audiences see themselves woven into popular American mythology. [These] films […] were a welcome reaction to the negative racial stereotypes permeating mainstream film at the time.”[12]

As a conclusion to that short, yet necessary, digression on independent African-American filmmakers, one could say that for a period of time spreading roughly over thirty years,[13] mainstream Hollywood movies co-existed with Race Movies. Nonetheless, it is essential to bear in mind that the large majority of Black-held roles that were actually seen by the widest audiences, that is to say white audiences, were still featured in “regular” movies, where stereotypes still prevailed. (For more on Race Movies, watch videos at the end of this post)

B. The 1920’s: the Harlem Renaissance, jazz, and the coming of sound films.

However, and to go back to the discussion on the place of African-Americans in 1920’s mainstream Hollywood, one can notice some changes taking place throughout the decade. Mostly, these changes did not concern the stereotypical use of African-American characters, which endured, but rather the importance of these roles, and the additions of new stereotypes. In his essay “Midnight Ramble: the Negro in Early Hollywood,” Michael Mills reported that from the late 1910’s until 1927, “there were about two dozen films with important black characters or scenes. None were as openly anti-Negro as The Birth of a Nation, but except for one or two, most adhered to the established stereotypes. The decade of the 1920’s did however, see a decline in the number of Blackface white actors that dominated the pre-talkies.”[14] It can be remarked here that the 1920’s were the decade where three major factors of change coincided, which had repercussions over the history of African-Americans in the Arts in general, and in motion pictures especially. Those factors were the Harlem Renaissance literary movement and its influence on African-American creativity, the boldness of the Jazz Age, and the coming of sound films in 1927.[15] An explanation of each of these factors needs to be given here, in order to grasp the effect that they had on the place and the image of African-Americans in Hollywood, and the consequences this image had on the future reactions to Gone with the Wind. First of all, the Harlem Renaissance was “a literary and cultural movement among black Americans which flourished from early 1920’s to early 1930’s. It was also called the ‘New Negro’ or ‘Black Renaissance’.

The Harlem Renaissance

The movement put considerable emphasis on the African heritage of American blacks.”[16] This element is interesting to help understand what caused the changes that occurred in the 1920’s. The audiences reached by the authors who were part of this movement, were much wider than what was generally true for any field of African-American art at the time. As a matter of fact:

“The Harlem Renaissance appealed to a mixed audience. The literature appealed to the African American middle class and to the white book-buying public. […] The Renaissance relied heavily on white publishing houses and white-owned magazines. In fact, a major accomplishment of the Renaissance was to push open the door to mainstream white periodicals and publishing houses, although the relationship between the Renaissance writers and white publishers and audiences created some controversy. While most African American critics strongly supported the relationship, Du Bois and others were sharply critical and accused Renaissance writers of reinforcing negative African American stereotypes. Langston Hughes spoke for most of the writers and artists when he wrote in his essay ‘The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain’ (1926) that black artists intended to express themselves freely, no matter what the black public or white public thought.”[17]

The fact that these African-American authors “appealed to a mixed audience”, somehow created a kind of precedent. Mainstream white publishing houses had found a financial interest in the publication of African-American writings. Well-read white audiences had found a new intellectual thrill, in the form of a new literature, which allowed them to penetrate the African-American soul. The crossing of the cultural color barriers enabled other African-American artists to achieve recognition and fame outside of their own community. “African-American musicians and other performers also played to mixed audiences. Harlem’s cabarets attracted both Harlem residents and white New Yorkers seeking out Harlem nightlife. Harlem’s famous Cotton Club carried this to an extreme, by providing black entertainment for exclusively white audiences. […] The more successful black musicians and entertainers […] appealed to a mainstream audience.”[18] For instance, in 1921, Eubie “Little Hubie” Blake, an African-American pianist and composer, and his business partner Noble Sissle,

Eubie Blake (left) and Noble Sissle (right)

wrote, directed and produced the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. It was not the first Broadway musical starring an all-black cast,[19] but it was nonetheless the first one ever to be created by African-Americans.[20] Shuffle Along was the first all-black cast Broadway musical to reach the status of box-office hit.[21] The link between the Harlem Renaissance as a literary movement, and another form of art such as music, will be studied next. But it can be added here that writer Langston Hughes described Shuffle Along as a “scintillating” start to the Harlem Renaissance,[22] directly pointing at the connection between these different expressions of African-American arts. Through black literature and black music, the 1920’s, which were to be called the Jazz Age by the emblematic author of the period Scott Fitzgerald,[23] seemed to represent a time of new opportunities. The permeability between fields of the Arts led to an opening of horizons for African-American artists in general. Michael Moor noted that:

“Scott Fitzgerald called the 1920’s the ‘Jazz Age’ because jazz music captured the ‘spontaneity’ of the times. It was in many respects and in certain quarters a time of ‘bohemian’ pursuits; a time for questionning ‘Victorian’ values and a time of sexual liberation. There is little doubt that part of the appeal of jazz at this time was its underlying sexual content, references, and associations. […] In any case, jazz became the sound and feel of the 1920’s. The craze for jazz elevated the status of the black musician and dancer. Many found international fame (Louis Armstrong, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson to name a few).”[24]

Jazz was not born in the 1920’s, but a newly-found, wider public interest allowed it to grow into an influential form of art. Jazz was the supreme form of African-American music. Yet, it had emerged from the blending of many different cultural and ethnographical musical genres. The fact that jazz had been born from mixed origins, was probably the reason why it had reached a large public recognition during the 1920’s. As was argued earlier, this decade was that of changes. Above all, the need for entertainment motivated the crowds that flocked to the Cotton Club in New York City

The Cotton Club in Harlem, New York.

or to the many jazz clubs of Chicago. There was a clear desire for originality, on the part of the public. The decisive novelty of the 1920’s in the field of entertainment, however, would be a technical one. In 1927, the Warner Bros. Company released what was to be remembered as the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer.[25] The introduction of the synchronized sound system called Vitaphone allowed the principal actor of the movie, Al Jolson, to perform songs and a few lines of dialogue. Here, it is necessary to emphasize two facts. First, it is essential to note that American cinema made its first steps into the sound era with a movie, in which the central theme was that of a white Jewish entertainer in Blackface makeup.

The “old ways” were still very evocative to movie audiences, despite the whole innovative atmosphere of the decade. As Professor Sylvester explained:

“The year of 1927 ushered in a new era in the motion picture industry. The use of sound films or the ‘talkies’ was the new technique connecting the silent staged scenes in movies to the voices of actors and the action of those scenes. The usage of blackface in sound films was still a carry over from the silent films when depicting African-Americans in movie roles. The old minstrel shows of entertainment by using exaggerated black characters was also a continued trend.

The popular rendition of Al Jolson as the Jazz Singer, produced in 1927, and two white sisters, Rosetta Duncan (in blackface) and Vivian Duncan (in natural face), as Topsy and Eva in 1927 dealt with Whites in characterizations of Blacks. In the sound films, the actors were forced to be convincing or sensitive or silly and stereotypic. Soon the black dialect and ‘suitable’ musical talents of both black and white actors had to fit into the making of ‘talkie’ motion pictures. Entertainment had to be more convincing by phasing out the blackfaced white actors and the use of more ‘suitable’ African-Americans in black character roles.”[26]

And second, it is also worth stressing the fact that in this first talking film, there was not as much talking as there was singing. The mere title and theme of the film was enough to point out the connection that existed between all the different forms of art at the time. Jazz music and singing had seemed like the most natural expressions of this new revolutionary technique; it had seemed like its most flamboyant demonstration. So there they were. The three factors of change that coincided in the 1920’s and impacted on the place of African-American artists in general, and actors in particular, were all set in motion. The Harlem Renaissance had enticed the curiosity of white audiences, and had allowed a relative crossing of the cultural and color barriers. The permeability between different forms of the arts had made it possible for jazz music , that is to say black music, to literaly enflame the imagination of crowds, both black and white. Finally, the coming of sound movies would be the perfect means for African-American actors and performers to make themselves indispensable, to white investors.

C. New stereotypes, new visibility: African-American actors and a lasting dilemma.

As a matter of fact, the mainstream movie industry thought of movies as mere products in an increasing manner. Hollywood’s prime motivation was to make money, by providing the entertainment that the audiences of the time so desperately craved. What was popular at the time was jazz, and therefore, the major studios would have to provide jazz music and dancing, in addition to the classical genres of films. On screen musical roles were born, and African-Americans were going to have a part to play in their development. “With the coming of sound, the talking and singing voice of the Negro, would most distinguish him or her from white society. [In] the period from 1927 to 1939 […] the number of black parts greatly increased.”[27] And indeed, African American culture began to be depicted more positively on screen.[28] The Harlem Renaissance movement, with the working relationships it involved between black writers and white publishing houses and audiences as well, had demonstrated the viability of investing on African-American culture and arts. The expansion of the popularity of jazz music had opened new horizons both for movie studios, which would bank on it, and for African-American performers, who would benefit from the new visibility they could acquire from it. Understandably, they hoped that this new visibility and positive image would not limit itself to musical roles. The mainstream movie industry had to acknowledge that African-Americans had a strong money-making potential, whether they be actors, singers and dancers in their white-intended films, or whether they be the target audience of all-black cast movies they would release. It can be added here that, as a consequence of this newly-found interest in African-American themes and audiences on the part of the major studios, Race Movies tended to decrease in number. This was partly due to the disproportion between the budget of African-American film companies and that of studios such as the Warner Bros. Company. “After 1929, Race Movies made by Black producers started to die out when Hollywood saw a market. The mainstream industry began making films with All-Black casts for Black audiences thus choking off Black independent producers and distributors. Hollywood had the ‘funds’ and their own agenda for making ‘money’ from Race Movies.”[29] The coming of sound films and the financial superiority of the major studios made it momentarily impossible for black-owned movie companies to follow. They lacked the money that was necessary to purchase the Vitaphone wiring equipment. Hollywood was able to exploit the African-American musical tradition for the first time. In conclusion, though it is true to say that the arrival of sound was synonymous with new opportunities for African-American actors, it should not be overlooked that instead of totally freeing them of old stereotypes, it was merely going to add new ones to the list of the Hollywood black imagery.

Despite the impetus given to African-American creativity through the various aforementioned cultural movements that took place in the1920’s, stereotypes were still very hard to circumvent. With the coming of the “talkies”, African-American actors and actresses were faced, yet once more, with a paradox. On the one hand, the increasing usage that would henceforth be made of their talent, in mainstream movies, would bring them the visibility they needed to exist as actors, on a national scale. But on the other hand, and as was explained earlier, appearing in stereotypical roles, even if those were new ones, made them seem to adhere to them. Their very presence in those films exposed them to the wrath of many a member of their own community. They were seen to perpetuate the burlesque, ridicule and the plain lies that insulted the African-American community, by denying them of a more realistic on-screen identity. Without a doubt, the most blatant example of this paradox, was the African-American actor Stepin Fetchit.[30] In his biography of Fetchit, Leonard Maltin describes “a performer whose very name became synonymous with degrading portrayals of blacks on-screen. [Fetchit] is a troubling figure. This vaudeville veteran played slow, dim-witted, foot-shuffling, bug-eyed types – but did so with superb timing and comic know-how.”[31] Fetchit was the perfect example of the typecasting of African-American actors. “His great talent was used by the majority to reinforce the stereotype of the lazy good-for-nothing Negro.”[32]

(Stepin Fetchit and Hattie McDaniel in Judge Priest, 1934)

Of course, Fetchit was not the only one who found himself facing that kind of dilemma. Indeed, the choice between working in stereotyped roles, or not working at all, presented itself to most African-American actors then. Nevertheless, Fetchit seemed to embody the duality that existed in most, whether they gave in to the Hollywood system or not. “The roles of African-Americans during the 1920’s thru 1940’s saw the rise of black actors seeking work but only receiving roles dealing with light comedy, music, or dance. Therefore we see Stepin Fetchit getting star billing as an African-American actor in a series of films as the slow-talking, lazy-like plantation Negro.”[33] African-American actors who had chosen to work in Hollywood, and had accepted the cliché roles they were being offered, had to deal with the antagonism of their position. By seemingly endorsing the Hollywood stereotypes, they were drawing back the image of African-Americans in general; but at the same time, the African-American movie stars that were born from this accession to public visibility, assuredly advanced the vision that white America had of African-Americans, everywhere in the country. In a well-remembered statement, actress Hattie McDaniel seemed to have summed up the lucid, and yet positive attitude that had been adopted by other African-American performers, as well as herself, when she had said: “Why should I complain about making seven thousand dollars a week playing a maid? If I didn’t, I’d be making seven dollars a week actually being one!”[34] From the year 1929 on, and for the decade to come, African-American actors and actresses would benefit from the Hollywood star-system, that had already benefitted the white actors throughout the 1920’s. Names such as Myrna Loy, Douglas Fairbanks or Joan Crawford, would soon be joined by those of Louise Beavers, Lorenzo Tucker or Hattie McDaniel. These African-American actors, as well as many others, would appear in increasing numbers of films, in which they could perform their parts, though submissive or stereotypical as they may be, in a manner that would gain them fame and recognition. The parts they were given often depicted unrealistic, sometimes even humiliating characters. It is therefore all the more inspiring that they succeeded in imparting spirit and talent to such caricatural roles. In these films, most African-Americans actors have not been remembered for the stereotypical aspect of their characters, but for the quality of their interpretations. In retrospect, this could be considered as a sort of evidence that the presence of African-American actors in Hollywood movies of the period, even when they were typecasted, and merely through the visibility it gave them, advanced the case of equality in race relations.

TO BE CONTINUED

(Next: III. Gone with the Wind: From novel to script; IV. African-American actors and the making of the film; V. African-American reactions to the film itself, or how to forget The Birth of a Nation.)

+ Version française de l’essai.

Videos on Race Movies.


[1] Snead, James A.. White Screens/Black Images: Hollywood from the Dark Side. New York: Routledge, 1994, pp. 2-3.

[2] Diller, Frank. « Mammy Dearest: the Depiction of African-American House Servants in The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Song of the South« . American Studies at the University of Virginia. August 1999.

[3] Beavers, Dibri L.. « The Woman Who Was Mammy ». American Legacy Magazine. Fall 2001.

[4] Cliff, Michelle, as cited in Campbell, Neil, and Alasdair Kean. American Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1999, [1997], p. 82.

[5] Wallace, Michele. « Race, Gender, And Psychoanalysis in Forties Film », in Diawara, Manthia, ed., Black American Cinema. New York and London: Routledge, 1993, p. 264.

[6] Peterson, Joanne. « African-American History Through the Arts: African-Americans and the Cinema », CGHS American Studies Department, 1999.

[7] Sylvester, Melvin R.. « African-Americans in Motion Pictures ». Black History Month at the Long Island University. February 1999.

[8] Butters, Jr., Gerald R.. Black Manhood on the Silent Screen. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2002.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Sylvester, op. cit..

[11] Benton, Phyllis. “Once Upon a Time We Were Colored”, Midnight Ramble, http://www.midnightramble.com.

[12] « Close Up in Black: African-American Film Posters ». Smithonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. 2003.

[13] Sylvester, op. cit.

[14] Mills, Michael. « Midnight Ramble: the Negro in Early Hollywood ». Modern Times Classic Film Pages. 1997.

[15] Bourget, Jean-Loup. Hollywood, Années 30 du Krach à Pearl Harbor. Rennes: 5 Continents/Hatier, 1986, p. 9.

[16] Cuddon, J. A., ed.. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1992, pp. 401-402.

[17] DeCordova Wintz, Cary. « Harlem Renaissance ». Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia. 2005.

[18] Ibid.

[19] « Eubie Blake: Je ne prononce jamais le mot jazz devant une dame, c’est très sale ». Jazz Magazine. April 1983.

[20] Turner, Nathaniel, « Eubie Blake ». Chicken Bones: A Journal for Literary and Artistic African-American Themes, 2005.

[21] Morgan, Thomas L.. « Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake ». Tom Morgan’s Jazz and Blues. 1997.

[22] Hughes, Langston, as cited in Moor, Michael. « A Trip to Coon Town: the Black American Cultural Influence on the American Musical Theatre ». Last revised September 2001.

[23] Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin Books, Ltd., 1994, [1925].

[24] Moor, op. cit..

[25] « The Jazz Singer« , Internet Movie Database Pro. Page 1 of 32. Last accessed July 2005.

[26] Sylvester, op. cit..

[27] Mills, op. cit..

[28] « Close Up in Black: African-American FilmPosters », op. cit..

[29] Benton, op. cit..

[30] Smith, Ronald L.. Who’s Who in Comedy: Comedians, Comics and Clowns from Vaudeville to Today’s Stand-Ups. New York: Facts on File, 1992.

[31] Maltin, Leonard. Movie Encyclopedia. New York: Plume Publishing, 1995.

[32] Mills, op cit..

[33] Sylvester, op. cit..

[34] Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1991, [1973], p. 82.

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African American Reactions to David O. Selznick’s Adaptation of Gone with the Wind in 1939, Causes and Context: Part I.

As I’ve always been interested in movies and movie history, it seems only logical that I would want to write an essay about one of the most famous movies of all: Gone with the Wind. So here’s the first part of five of an essay entitled African-American Reactions to David O. Selznick’s Adaptation of Gone with the Wind in 1939: Causes and Context, which I wrote back in 2005, and used as a Master’s Thesis. I’ll be posting the four other parts, as well as a French translation of the entire essay, in future posts.


Scarlett O'Hara & Mammy (Vivien Leigh & Hattie McDaniel)

Vision of African-Americans in 1930s Hollywood

Gone with the Wind has often been considered the most famous, enduring and popular film of all time. Its script was derived from Margaret Mitchell’s only ever published novel. Set during the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the book came out in 1936, after it had been written mostly in the late 1920’s. Independent Hollywood producer David O. Selznick had purchased the rights to Mitchell’s novel in 1936, for a mere $50,000. The film had reached the highest grossing film status, eventually reaching almost $200 million in the United States only, and $400 million worldwide. With its thirteen Academy Awards Nominations, the eight Oscars it actually did win during the 1940 Ceremony, and the international fame it gained, the movie itself finally proved Selznick right, after years of doubt, uncertainties and controversy. Using the word “controversy” in reference to Gone with the Wind, may leave the 2011 spectator short of a real understanding, as to what exactly were the elements of the film that could be regarded as controversial. As a matter of fact, when considering only the surface of the film from a modern perspective, it would be possible not to see anything else in it but a story of love and hate, similar to so many others. However, this somewhat passive reception of the film does not render accurately, and by far, the whole spectrum of emotions, and reactions that the making of the film, and the film itself, had stirred in the late 1930’s. If the triumph of the film cannot be denied as far as the box-office is concerned, certain important nuances need to be taken into account when it comes to a more in depth analysis of the Gone with the Wind phenomenon. More particularly, I will endeavour to understand how the African-American community reacted at the time, to the adaptation of a book, which not only dealt with love and hate, but also with much more troubling issues, namely slavery and the Civil War. Of course, the African-American reactions to the film did not insulate themselves from other outside elements; they were not without reasons. They had emerged as consequences of certain events, certain facts, which shall be discussed in the course of this post. More often than not, they had been the result of the very troubled relations that had existed between African-Americans and Hollywood eversince the inception of the film industry, and which had spanned over more than twenty years until the making of Gone with the Wind. For this particular reason, and in order to better understand the variety of African-American reactions the film motivated, the causes and context for this gamut of responses will need to be studied at length.

In order to be able to form a valid and authentic image of the African-American reactions to David O. Selznick’s adaptation of Gone with the Wind, I will begin with a general overview of the image that had been given of African-Americans in films prior Gone with the Wind. Consequently, it will be necessary to go back to 1915 and the film The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith, and its overtly biased depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction period. Being more than a mere anecdote in the history of Hollywood’s attitude towards the African-American community, The Birth of a Nation and its consequences will be an essential point in the analysis of the future African-American reactions to Gone with the Wind. More generally then, the general, classic, stereotypes which had been adopted by the mainstream film industry immediately after Griffith’s film will be detailed and scrutinized. Then, three factors of change, which took place in the 1920’s, would begin altering the vision that the Hollywood industry had on the African-American community, and shall be placed here in relation to the beginning of new stereotypes within mainstream films. Logically enough then, Margaret Mitchell’s novel and its troublesome clichés will be discussed, especially from the point of view of the African-American community, and so will the prospect of a film adaptation of the story, envisaged by producer David O. Selznick. How then did the African-American community react to the very idea of the making of this film? The enduring heritage of the infamous The Birth of a Nation will be shown lingering in the minds of the African-American community. Their various viewpoints will be dealt with, as well as the artistic choices undertaken by Selznick in the preparation of his picture. Indeed, I will try and assess the importance of Selznick’s view on the way that he translated the novel into film. The casting of the African-American actors, the angle from which their characters would be approached, and the conditions they were to face on the set, all seem equally relevant as to the general atmosphere which surrounded the picture, as far as the African-American community and press were concerned. Eventually, it will then come to the release of the film itself, and the multiple reactions it gave rise to on the part of the black press and audiences, who had long felt threatened by the filming of a Civil War picture, based on what they saw to be a biased Civil War novel.

Margaret Mitchell with David O. Selznick and the cast of GWTW, Atlanta, Dec.16, 1939.

I. The Birth of a Nation and its consequences.

A. The coming of the film.

Gone with the Wind was released in 1939. Naturally, it was not the first movie in which black characters were to be found. As far back as the silent movies era, African-Americans had been featured in motion pictures, playing roles that depicted aspects of the Hollywood black imagery, which will be examined in depth further on. Throughout the years, the themes and messages of these movies have presented a number of images, based on what was felt would please their viewers. Unfortunately, most of these movies painted a picture where black characters were confined to very negative and very stereotypical roles, which the average African-American could never really identify with. Furthermore, eversince 1905 and until the mid-1930’s, it was not uncommon to notice that the African-American characters in many Hollywood films were being portrayed by white actors wearing what was called blackface make-up.[1] For the movie-makers of the early twentieth century, only white actors could play the roles of black characters, since it was assumed that white audiences would never pay their ticket to go and watch African-American actors perform. This is all the more true as many movie theatres were segregated, especially in the South, and movies were therefore mostly intended for white audiences. The first occurrence where actual black people were featured in a movie was in 1910, when an African-American press agent in Chicago, William Foster, decided to make a film called The Railroad Porter, [2] featuring an all-black cast. Foster then created his own movie company, the Foster Photoplay Company, in order to be able to keep on building up a path for his African-American fellows, and went on making short movies with African-Americans in them, and no longer white actors in blackface. One of the very first times when an African-American actor was hired to portray the main character of a movie was when Sam Lucas was cast to play the title role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the 54-minute-long version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, which was released in 1914.[3] Nonetheless, as will be shown afterwards, this was not the end of the blackfaced actors.

When discussing the unfair status and treatment of African-American characters in early Hollywood, one movie automatically springs to mind. This movie exemplifies perfectly the stereotypical use of black characters, with all the blatant racism that it implies. This movie is D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, released in 1915.[4] For if Gone with the Wind was not the first film to feature African-American characters, it was not either the first movie to try re-creating the age of the Civil War and Reconstruction. Griffith’s movie did too. To better understand the magnitude of the impact The Birth of a Nation had in its days, and in order to fully appreciate the heritage of this epic monster at the time of the release of Gone with the Wind in 1939, it is necessary to start with the books it was adapted from, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman (which, along with The Traitor, made up The Reconstruction Trilogy), written by Thomas Dixon, respectively in 1902 and 1905.[5]

Thr Reconstruction Trilogy, by Thomas Dixon.

Dixon was born a Southerner in rural North Carolina in 1864. In his works, he argued “for three interrelated beliefs still current in Southern life: the need for racial purity, the sanctity of the family centered on a traditional wife and mother, and [the fight against] the evil of socialism.”[6] He spent his entire writing career encouraging the racial and social supremacy of the White, as well as the Ku Klux Klan’s use of violence to redeem the loss of the Confederate South and its ideal of a society based on slavery. Dixon disliked Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been published in 1852,[7] as he considered it an insult to White superiority in general, and Southern honor in particular. He decided to counter-attack what he deemed to be a false representation of the African-Americans’ nature. In his mind, the novel shed too positive a light onto race relations in the South. His most famous books were a direct answer to Uncle Tom’s Cabin [8]. In The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman, he presented his readers with his own interpretation of race relations. David W. Griffith, the future director of the film, was also a Southerner [9]. He wanted to bring to the screen an epic story of lost glory, where the Southern white men would be portrayed as the heroes he felt they were. He trusted he had found what he needed in Dixon’s books.

David Wark Griffith.

First of all, it is essential that a short summary of the film should be given here, in order to be able to imagine, just by the mere reading of it, the kind of controversy it might have stirred when it was released back in 1915. The movie was split into three different parts. The first part takes place before the Civil War. Two families, the Stonemans from the North, and the Camerons from the South, are at the center of the plot. Congressman Austin Stoneman is an enthusiastic abolitionist, and has a daughter, Elsie, and two sons. The Camerons have two daughters, Flora and Margaret, and three sons, including Ben, the central character. The two families are shown to be very close to one another, as the Stoneman boys, Phil and Ted, pay a friendly visit to the Cameron family in their South Carolina estate. The eldest Stoneman boy falls in love with Margaret Cameron, while her brother Ben starts dreaming about Elsie Stoneman, whose picture he has seen and adores. As the Civil War breaks out, so does the second part of the movie. The sons of both families join their respective sides. As the estate of the Camerons is being plundered by a militia of black men led by a white Captain, a troop of Confederates charges and chases off the intruders. Meanwhile, in a Northern hospital, Ben, the only survivor of the three Cameron boys, slowly recovers from his injuries. He is comforted by the presence of Elsie Stoneman, who happens to work there. The end of the second part sees the murder of Abraham Lincoln, and the endurance of a deliberate will from Northern men such as Austin Stoneman, to have the South suffer, as a punishment for the Secession. The third, and final part, takes place during the Reconstruction period. Stoneman is now in South Carolina, where he succeeds into having Silas Lynch, his mulatto protégé, unrighteously elected as Lieutenant Governor. Ben Cameron, who is willing to defend his family and the values he has always believed in, creates the Ku Klux Klan. Gus, a former slave, is then seen attempting to rape Flora Cameron after having chased her through the woods. In a desperate gesture, she throws herself off a cliff rather than be caught by him. Her brother and several other members of the Klan, track down Gus, and hang him after a mock-trial where he is found guilty of murder. As a retaliation, Lynch sends his militia out to kill all of the members of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, as the Camerons fear for their own lives, they leave the estate for a remote country house. In the absence of his protector Austin Stoneman, Silas Lynch tries to force his daughter Elsie into marrying him, but is prevented from doing so by the “timely” intervention of the Klan. As the Cameron family is trapped by the militia, the Klan, once again, comes to the rescue. The viewer is then invited to a street parade where the white-hooded men celebrate their victory over the black militia. They rejoice at the idea of the upcoming election, which they will supervise. By preventing any black men from voting, they assume it is then bound to be just. Painted as metaphors for the North and the South, both families are reunited, thanks to their alliance against their newly-found common enemies: freed slaves.

Original poster for The Birth of a Nation, 1915.

B. A landmark in American cinema and racism.

In 1988, the Library of Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act, which enabled the Librarian of Congress to select certain films in order to add them to the National Film Registry. The Birth of a Nation is one of the movies amongst those selected and has been since 1993.[10] In his essay on The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, Melvyn Stokes commented on that addition to the Registry:

“The decision led to a protest – part of a long campaign – by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ‘to honor this film’, argued chairman William Gibson, ‘is to pay tribute to America’s shameful racial history.’ Hollywood itself had long regarded the film as an embarrassment: a landmark movie for its technical achievement and the size of its audience, but a work profoundly flawed as a consequence of its racist message.” [11]

What, then, made this explicitly racist movie into one of the landmarks of American cinema as an art? One of the criteria that movies have to meet in order to be selected by the Library of Congress is that they must be culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. As will be presented here, though biased and overtly racist, and possibly because it is biased and overtly racist, this movie is an important part of the American heritage. Much as a film shows and says about the period it recounts, it shows and says even more about the period in which it was made. If the African-American reaction to the making of Gone with the Wind, and to the film itself in 1939 is to be understood, it can only be done by carefully analyzing the impact the release of The Birth of a Nation had had, twenty four years before.

In order to begin answering the question of the reception of the movie, one must first wonder what separated that film from the rest of them, why it did stand out, and why it has reached fame. It is easy to note that it was quite different from the other pictures that were made then, already by simply looking at its length. For instance, the 1914 version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, starring Sam Lucas, was 54 minutes long, as was mentioned earlier. This was already quite long compared to most films. At the time, the format of Hollywood movies was indeed very different from today’s film standards. Most pictures of the early twentieth century were no more than one reel in length, which meant they were only twelve minutes long, or even shorter.[12] The Birth of a Nation was an unprecedented three-hour-long movie, shot on over twelve reels of film, which made it the first feature-length film in American history. If the technological advances are to be considered as well, this film definitely does meet the requirement for aesthetical significance demanded by the National Film Preservation Act. John Aldred of the Association of Motion Picture Sound and member of the Cine Guilds of Great Britain describes:

“Audiences everywhere were stunned by Griffith’s forceful style of directing.[…] Close-ups were prolific at a time when other producers were afraid to cut off the actor’s feet. When horsemen charged across the screen the top and the bottom of the screen were masked off to stress the dramatic effect, pre-dating wide screen. For long shots the camera was mounted on top of a huge tower where Griffith directed the action with his megaphone.[…] For other scenes the camera was mounted on a racing car so that it could move directly in front of galloping horses whilst filming close-ups of the riders.”[13]

In The Birth of a Nation, Griffith introduced a number of new styles and techniques. In this regard, there is no doubt he is a crucial figure in the history of American cinema. Pulitzer Prize winner and critic James Agee wrote in the newspaper The Nation, in its issue of September 4, 1948, that “there is not a man in movies, or a man who cares for them, who does not owe Griffith more than he owes anybody else.”[14]

Then, is it acceptable that the form should be completely separated from its content so that this movie could be called a masterpiece? The depiction of black people that was made in the movie, as either lazy, brutish, as well as vicious and lascivious creatures, or as childlike, content and docile servants, was overtly racist. The African-American characters were presented as “dependent on white paternalism and relegated to the political status of children.”[15] The main threat that seemed to be presented to the audience, and mostly to the white audience as was shown earlier, was the threat of miscegenation. The theme of the mulatto was to be found in several of the most important scenes of the film. The movie appeared to try and demonstrate that there was nothing more dangerous than the combination of the supposed savagery and fierce sexual instincts of the black man, with the supposed superiority of the white intellect.[16] In his Master’s Thesis “Mammy Dearest: The Depiction of African-American House Servants in The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Song of the South?” Frank Diller noted that “with the understanding that miscegenation has occurred and it has damaged society, the white families (and, by association, the audience) seek to keep things in simple, black and white terms.”[17] The obvious presence of racism in the movie and the idea that segregation is desirable, make it impossible to dissociate the form from the content. In his essay “Art vs. Propaganda Birth of a Nation: Viewed Today”, Donato Totaro theorized that this impossibility came from the fact that all the great technological advances that had been established by Griffith, only had one purpose, that was to serve and spread his ideology, and therefore, his biased image of history:

“Separating its pernicious content […] from its groundbreaking form […] is extremely problematic because […] much of the film’s ‘great’ form is at the direct service of Griffith’s ideology; from the association of ‘whiteness’ in the art direction, costume, makeup, and brighter/warmer lighting of the South and white characters, the glorification of the KKK through privileged form (camera movement, tinting, music), the hierarchical placement of African-American characters in the background of shots and white characters in the foreground, and to the crosscutting technique that is structured with a ‘good/bad’ quotient and designed to make us emotionally root for the ‘good’ (white).[…] But can a truly great film (or work of art) be infused with such mean-spirited hatred?”[18]

To this, it is necessary to add that Griffith did not only present a biased view of history through his direction of the movie, he also resorted to a trick that was ever so derogatory to black people: the use of white actors in blackface to portray his black villains. Some shots from the movie, could be described as bizarre, where a blackface character would be shown acting in the foreground, while real African-American actors would be laboring in the fields behind him. Lilian Gish, who played the role of Elsie Stoneman, reported in her autobiography that Griffith had answered to that particular critic, by saying that “there were scarcely any Negro actors on the Coast. And I am accustomed to working with actors I have trained.”[19] This answer seems enlightning to the 2011 reader. Not only did Griffith aknowledge the fact that he obviously did not bother to look for black actors whom he could “train” himself, but he also appeared ignorant of the paradox that was to be found in his very excuse. The mere fact that he decided to use white actors to portray those black characters is a tell-tale sign: the makeup was crude and one could never have mistaken those faces to be those of real African-Americans. Griffith’s apparent lack of perfectionism was only too revealing of the fact that the white audiences would never have permitted actual black actors to perform in some of the very sexually-charged scenes, such as the attempted rape of a white woman. Therefore, the makeup had to be visible.

Griffith’s innovative filmmaking techniques alone cannot satisfactorily account for the movie’s tremendous success. For it was a tremendous success: the movie reached an extraordinary total US gross of $60,000,000, on a much less impressive $110,000 production budget.[20] Then it is only logical that the social and cultural implications of the film should require a more in-depth attention. The causes and context for such a success are extremely interesting indeed, especially if one wants to be able to understand their consequences on the career of Gone with the Wind. Of course, it is possible to imagine the reactions that would arise from the image given of the Ku Klux Klan and of the African-American characters portrayed in The Birth of a Nation, should it be released today. However it would be too simple, even simplistic, and perhaps a bit naive, to assume that the response it got in 1915 was altogether violently negative and outraged. However shocked he may be, the 2011 viewer has to keep in mind that the world of 1915 was indeed a very different one from his own. The audiences that flocked into movie theaters were deeply intertwined with the culture of lynchings, widespread antiblack sentiment and the Jim Crow laws,[21] made to enforce racial segregation. “Blacks were frequently the victims of violence, in the South. Public transport, churches, theaters, parks, beaches and schools were segregated. […] Their career opportunities remained limited. Historically and socially segregation was rooted in a desire to keep the best work and higher social status for whites and to ensure no dilution of the white race and its culture.”[22] The racism that African-Americans encountered in the country in those days, was simply mirrored in The Birth of a Nation, and it does not come as a surprise that the movie was thoroughly enjoyed by most of its white spectators. In an essay entitled “The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest,” the Center for History and New Media established that “it is not surprising, perhaps, that The Birth of a Nation, which appeared in March 1915, was both one of the landmarks in the history of American cinema and a landmark in American racism.”[23] It is also interesting to note that, in his review of the movie,[24] Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert of The Chicago Sun Times, stated that:

“Griffith and The Birth of a Nation were no more enlightened than the America which produced them. The film represents how racist a white American could be in 1915 without realizing he was racist at all. That is worth knowing. Blacks already knew that, had known it for a long time, witnessed it painfully again every day, but The Birth of a Nation demonstrated it in clear view, and the importance of the film includes the clarity of its demonstration. That it is a mirror of its time is, sadly, one of its values.”

Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States of America, and a former history teacher, was shown the film at the White House, and proclaimed it not only historically accurate, but like “writing history with Lightning. And my regret is that it is all so terribly true.”[25] Like Woodrow Wilson, and of course Griffith, most white people regarded the movie as a truthful representation of the events it portrayed, and the race relations of the time. They did not view it as biased. The ideas and attitudes expressed in The Birth of a Nation were very much consistent with those of the audiences who rushed to see it.

C. Consequences of the film and African-American reception.

However, and tragically enough, the movie was not only redundent with the ideas of most of its spectators; it also stirred a renewed instinct of fear and hatred in many a white man. In an article entitled “Birth of a Nation sparks Klan’s new life,”[26] reporter Lori Henson of The Savannah Morning News, dated the second awakening of the Ku Klux Klan to November 1915. The review that was made of the film on November 28, 1915, for the Georgian newspaper and which was cited by Henson, went as follows:

“Heralded by the praises of scores of Savannah people who witnessed the spectacle in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago or some other large city where it has enjoyed record-smashing runs, The Birth of a Nation comes to the Savannah Theater to-morrow night to begin a three-days’ engagement.”

This event was regarded as gay and exciting; yet two days earlier, on November 26, William J. Simmons had led 25,000 marchers through the streets of Atlanta in celebration

William J. Simmons, seated during a 1921 investigation of the Ku Klux Klan by a U.S. House of Representatives committee, was inspired by D. W. Griffith's film, The Birth of a Nation to reestablish the Klan in 1915. Simmons designed the hooded uniforms and secret rituals associated with the organization.

of the opening of the film. The same William J. Simmons founded the second Ku Klux Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia, shortly afterwards. Historically, what was called the first Ku Klux Klan had entered its nadir in January 1869, and had remained latent until 1915. The new Klan, however, had a wider program than its forerunner, since it had added to the concept of “white supremacy” a strong anti- Semitic character, an element which is to be developed later in this post. In his essay “The Birth of a Nation: Propaganda as History,”John Hope Franklin described:

“In the same year, 1915, that The Birth of a Nation was showing to millions across the United States, The Ku Klux Klan was reborn. When the film opened in Atlanta that Fall, William J. Simmons, who had considered a Klan revival for several years, sprang into action. He gathered together nearly two score men, including two members of the original Klan of 1866 and the speaker of the Georgia legislature. They agreed to found the order, and Simmons picked Thanksgiving eve for the formal ceremonies. As the film opened in Atlanta, a local paper carried Simmons’ announcement next to the advertisement of the film. It was an announcement of the founding of ‘The World’s Greatest Secret, Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficiary Order.’ With an assist from Birth of a Nation, the new Ku Klux Klan, a ‘High Class Order of Men of Intelligence and Order,’ was launched. It would spread all across the South and into the North and West in the 1920’s and spread terror among Jews and Catholics as well as blacks.”[27]

Then, the violence of the message engendered by the film, had been heard. This especially heinous consequence of the film, would forever sow the seed of suspicion against all Hollywood endeavours in the hearts of the African-American community. And indeed, twenty-four years later, David O. Selznick would try anything that he could not to be regarded as D. W. Griffith’s heir. The fact that The Birth of a Nation had encouraged the rebirth of the long-dormant Ku Klux Klan would later embarrass Griffith. He did not think himself racist, and this is emphasized by the seemingly naive, yet revealing reply that he made to accusations he was anti-Negro; and which was later reported by Lilian Gish: “To say that is like saying I am against children, as they were our children, whom we loved and cared for all of our lives.”[28] This condescending remark exemplifies to perfection the basic paternalist and racist attitude that most African-Americans had to endure throughout the country in their everyday life.

How then did the African-American community react, both to the movie and to its grim repercussions? When Griffith released the film in 1915, the young National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP), which had been founded in 1909, as well as other black groups, were prompt to acknowledge the threat posed by The Birth of a Nation. Eventhough they knew that a public controversy would only help the tickets to the movie sell even better, they felt they had to go against its shameless racism. A series of protests begun even before the release of the film, and aimed at banning it throughout the country.[29] In a famous article, published on March 20, 1915, in The New Republic, Francis Hackett argued that “whatever happened during Reconstruction, this film is aggressively vicious and defamatory. It is spiritual assassination. It degrades the censors that passed it and the white race that endures it.”[30] After trying – and failing – to ban the movie from appearing anywhere, the Boston Chapter of the NAACP published a 47-page pamphlet entitled “Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation,”[31] in which the movie was referred to as “three miles of filth”. W.E.B. Du Bois published harsh reviews in The Crisis, reviews that created a heated debate amongst the National Board of Censorship of Motion Picture as to whether the film should be banned throughout the country.[32] The ban was, however, never implemented. The NAACP then attempted to have some of the most offensive scenes taken out. In a letter written on April 17, 1915, Mary Child Nerney, who was the secretary for the Chicago Chapter of the association, had addressed the issue and her disillusionment concerning the will of the producers to tame down the inflammatory subject of the film:

“I am utterly disgusted with the situation in regard to The Birth of a Nation. […] We have fought it at every possible point. In spite of the promise of the Mayor to cut out the two objectionable scenes in the second part, which show a white girl committing suicide to escape a Negro pursuer, and a mulatto politician trying to force marriage upon the daughter of his white benefactor. […] I have seen the thing four times and am positive that nothing more will be done about it. […]

Frankly, I do not think [we] can do one single thing. It has been to me a most liberal education and I purposely am through. The harm it is doing the colored people cannot be estimated. I hear echoes of it wherever I go and have no doubt that this was in the mind of the people who are producing it. Their profits here are something like $14,000 a day and their expenses about $400. I have ceased to worry about it, and if I seem disinterested, kindly remember that we have put six weeks of constant effort of this thing and have gotten nowhere.”[33]

Though they were powerless to stop the release of the film, the NAACP as well as other NAACP members protesting the film Birth of A Nation in front of a movie theatre, 1915.political groups, benefited from this newly-found public attention. It helped them become well-known for their fight against discrimination, and eventually helped them grow more powerful. The Birth of a Nation “provided the NAACP with ‘an issue just when it needed one’, allowing it to put its own case across with maximum publicity.”[34]

TO BE CONTINUED

(Next: II. African-American stereotypes in Hollywood after The Birth of a Nation; III. Gone with the Wind: From novel to script; IV. African-American actors and the making of the film; V. African-American reactions to the film itself, or how to forget The Birth of a Nation.)

+ Version française de l’essai.


[1] Dyer, Richard. White. London and New York: Routledge, 1997, p. 51.

[2] Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1991, [1973], pp. 101-102.

[3] Bogle, op. cit., p. 6.

[4] The Birth of a Nations. David W. Griffith – Director; David W. Griffith – Producer; David W. Griffith Corp., 1915.

[5] Vera, Hernan and Andrew Gordon. « Sincere Fictions of the White Self in the American Cinema: The Divided White Self in Civil War Films », in Bernardi, Daniel, ed., Classic Hollywood Classic Whiteness. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, p. 266.

[6] Reagan Wilson, Charles and William Ferris. Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.

[7] Grellet, Françoise. An Introduction to American Literature: Time Present and Time Past. Paris: Hachette Supérieur, 1987, p. 37.

[8] Campbell, Neil, and Alasdair Kean. American Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 1999, [1997], p. 154.

[9] Tulart, Jean. Dictionnaire du Cinéma: les Réalisateurs. Paris: Robert Laffont, 2003.

[10] « Films Selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, 1989-2004 ». National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

[11] Stokes, Melvyn. « Crises in History and the Response to Them as Illustrated in The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind« . La Licorne n°36. Université de Poitiers. 1996, pp. 66-77.

[12] Bowers, David Q.. Nickelodeon Theatres and their Music. Vestal, NY: The Vestal Press, 1986.

[13] Aldred, John. « The Story of Two Great (Silent) Movies ». Association of Motion Picture Sound Newsletter. Winter 1998.

[14] Agee, James. The Nation. September 4, 1948, as cited in Gilchrist, Josh, « 90 Years Later, Birth of a Nation Still Stirs Emotion ». The Billings Outpost. January 2003.

[15] Guerrero, Ed. The African-American Image in Film: Framing Blackness. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1993. p. 11.

[16] Steiger, Janet. Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, p. 141.

[17] Diller, Frank. « Mammy Dearest: the Depiction of African-American House Servants in The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind and Song of the South« . American Studies at the University of Virginia. August 1999

[18] Totaro, Donato. « Art vs. Propaganda, Birth of a Nation: Viewed Today ». Offscreen Essays. February 2004.

[19] Gish, Lilian, with Ann Pinchot. The Movies, Mr. Griffith, and Me. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969.

[20 ) Menand, Louis. « A Critic at Large: Gross Points ». The New Yorker, The Critics. February 2005.

[21] Lévy, Claude. Les minorités ethniques aux Etats-Unis. Paris: Ellipses, 1997, p. 78.

[22] Sanders, Vivienne. Race Relations in the USA since 1900. London: Access to History, August 2000, p. 34.

[23] « Episodes in History, Art [and History] by Lightning Flash: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest ». Center for History and New Media. 1995.

[24] Ebert, Roger. « Review: Birth of a Nation« . Chicago Sun Times. Last revised 2005.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Henson, Lori. « Birth of a Nation Sparks Klan’s New Life ». Savannah Morning News. August 20, 2000.

[27] Franklin, John Hope. Race and History: Selected Essays 1938-1988. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1989, p. 21, as cited in Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. « Gone with the Wind: Black and White in Technicolor ». Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Volume 21. Number 1. January/February/March 2004, p. 63.

[28] Gish, Lilian, as cited in Ebert, Roger. “Review: Birth of a Nation”, op. Cit.

[29] « Episodes in History, Art [and History] by Lightning Flash: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest », op. cit.

[30] Hackett, Francis, as cited in Geduld, Harry M.. Focus on D. W. Griffith. London: Prentice-Hall International, Inc., 1971, p. 95.

[31] NAACP Boston Chapter. « Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation, 1915″, as excerpted in Geduld, Harry M.. Focus on D. W. Griffith. London: Prentice-Hall International, Inc., 1971, p. 94.

[32] Lavender, Catherine. « D. W. Griffith, The Birth of a Nation (1915) ». City University of New York. Last revised June 2001.

[33] « Episodes in History, Art [and History] by Lightning Flash: The Birth of a Nation and Black Protest », op. cit.

[34] Schickel, Richard. D. W. Griffith and the Birth of Film. London: Pavilion, 1984, p. 226, as cited in Stokes, op. cit., p. 75.

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