So I finally bit the bullet and bought the few films that I consider "essential American films" that I already didn't own, since I was closing in on them anyway. The difference between these films and the other ones I've bought is that I've never seen them and/or I saw them and didn't particularly like them. It was a short but powerful list: Singin' in the Rain (never saw), The Wizard of Oz (never liked), The Godfather (never completely saw), and the great albatross of 20th century American film, Gone With the Wind.
For reasons that aren't worth getting into now, I somehow ended up seeing it two times within a two week period for two different classes in college, meaning that for some eight hours in one fortnight I was watching with fear and loathing while that crazy bitch named Scarlett O'Hara fiddle-dee-dee'ed herself from one petty, self-delusional situation to another. When I told my professor from the southern culture class I watched it for that I found Scarlett completely unsympathetic, he responded with all of the shock and dismay as if I had just shot his mother.
"But people love Scarlett," he reasoned in his thick southern accent. "Scarlett helps the wounded. She delivers Melanie's baby. She goes back to Tara and saves her family. Scarlett is a hero!"
Watching it again recently, I finally understood what he was saying. Being a complete bitch and doing what's right -- even when it's very difficult -- are not mutually exclusive entities. I guess I'm just predetermined to always face the film with two strikes against it: one, as a northerner, where everyone from my part of the country is treated as one big bad city-burning, carpetbagging enemy; two, as a historian, where the South is a thinly-veiled lost world of paradise, built upon delusion and lies.
It makes me think about something a different professor said about historical films: Any film attempting to depict a historical time ends up telling more about the time in which it was made than the time that it is trying to present. This statement has never been truer than in Gone With the Wind (okay, maybe Birth of a Nation, but I digress).
I once read the introduction to a classic film guide aimed at families. The whole impetus for the book arose from when the author was watching Gone With the Wind with his two young daughters, and the older one turned around and asked him why all of the black characters talked so funny. The question makes the author jump out of his skin for a moment and see everything fresh like it was the first time. He had never thought about those issues because he gave the movie a "free pass" for its extreme historical and cultural significance, but now a child's innocent question made him feel otherwise.
In our post-P.C. age of African American Best Actress winners and presidents, our instincts tell us to avoid the film as much as possible, and when it does come up, compliment its innovations and influence, while flatly dismissing it for its pie-in-the-sky depiction of the Old South and its slave system. The latter move is an attempt on the speaker's part to distance themselves from the world it creates; in this regard it can be seen as the social flipside of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George end every observation about gay people with the line, "Not that there's anything wrong with that..."
The problem for me with Gone With the Wind, then, is that the slaves are the most interesting characters in the film; and as I researched the actors further, it's probably is no coincidence that the actors who played them are even more fascinating.
Most famous is Hattie McDaniel, who plays Scarlett's no-nonsense Mammy (no other name for her is given, if indeed she even had one) is the most famous, taking what could have been a two-dimensional caricature and fleshing it out with real human emotion and depth. Much of this is done with her eyes -- at times thankful, at times sullen, and almost always wary -- which defy the hackneyed lines she is given.
Her performance was so strong that her peers couldn't ignore it, and she famously became the first African American to be nominated for and win an Oscar, beating out costar Olivia de Havilland among others. (And lest we think that the Academy can take one step forward without also taking one step back, it should be noted that the second African American to win an Oscar was James Baskett "for his able and heart-warming characterization of Uncle Remus, friend and story teller to the children of the world in Walt Disney's Sound of the South.")
She gave a heartfelt speech at the awards program, calling her Oscar win "one of the happiest moments of my life" and honor that has made her "feel very, very humble" and that she will "always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future." She continued: "
It is time that members of the Negro race are accorded, without reservations or evasions, the full rights guaranteed them under the 14th Amendment the Federal Constitution. Judges have been avoiding the real issue too long." Said McDaniel of the decision: "Words cannot express my appreciation."