Muse Reporting on popular and fine arts

Gone with the Wind swept up in national debate

Entertainment | One theater’s decision to stop showing the film draws harsh criticism
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 9/01/17, 11:34 am

Amid the national debate over Confederate statues and symbols, a Memphis, Tenn., theater generated a monumental controversy by canceling future screenings of Gone with the Wind. Before a final showing Aug. 11, leaders at the Orpheum Theatre decided not to carry on tradition and screen the film next summer, in response to concerns from several patrons about racism in the storyline.

The 1939 movie follows a white plantation owner’s daughter before, during, and after the Civil War. Scarlett O’Hara ruthlessly clings to her old way of life as the war and Reconstruction strip away her power, money, and privilege. If O’Hara is a symbol of the Old South, the portrayal is hardly complementary, though many viewers over the years have excused her moral shortcomings and embraced her charm, beauty, and perseverance.

The film’s treatment of African-Americans is more problematic. Slaves are portrayed as ignorant but affable and dependent on their white masters. Gone with the Wind singlehandedly codified in American culture the stereotype of “Mammy,” usually an elderly African-American woman of limited intelligence who cares for and caters to the whims of white children. Hattie McDaniel’s Academy Award for the role of O’Hara’s Mammy was a major cultural achievement for African-Americans in the arts, but the way the role belittled black women speaks to the entrenched racism of the time.

Theaters and museums have struggled for decades with how to best handle the tale, which, when adjusted for inflation, remains the top-earning movie in the history of American filmmaking. Timing and circumstance shined a glaring spotlight on the Orpheum in Memphis: Its most recent showing of Gone with the Wind took place the same night white supremacists marched with torches through Charlottesville, Va., to protest the proposed removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. 

According to Memphis’ The Commercial Appeal, Orpheum president Brett Batterson said he decided before the screening and the Charlottesville protests not to include the movie in next summer’s lineup. He made the decision after a professor of African-American studies at a local college approached him with concerns about the film. 

“Why are we playing this anachronistic tribute to the Old South in a majority black city?” Charles McKinney of Rhodes College reportedly asked.

The Commercial Appeal learned of Batterson’s decision and ran a story on Aug. 25, two weeks after Charlottesville turned the national debate over Confederate symbolism into a bonfire of opinions (see Jamie Dean’s “Monuments men” in the latest issue of WORLD Magazine). Scathing critiques of the theater poured in from across the country. Conservative commentators such as Todd Starnes and Rush Limbaugh accused the Orpheum of extreme political correctness. On the theater’s Facebook page, hundreds of commenters called Batterson and his colleagues communist, ignorant, cowardly, hypocritical (because they allow other films that promote racist stereotypes, such as The King and I), and worse. 

So is Gone with the Wind a historic Hollywood classic or an artifact of exploitation? As is so often the case in the cultural and fine arts, it depends on whom you ask. One important difference between the movie and the much-debated statues of Confederate generals: While taking down a public monument denies everyone the chance to appreciate it, fans of Gone with the Wind can buy the movie on Blu-ray or DVD and enjoy it at home as often as they want.

Associated Press/Photo by Tina Fineberg Associated Press/Photo by Tina Fineberg Harry Potter fans stand in line to purchase the next installment in J.K. Rowling’s popular series in 2007.

A dearth of blockbuster books

Can you remember the last big novel that everyone read and talked about? Maybe it was The Hunger Games, something in the Harry Potter series, or one of the “girl” books—Gone Girl, Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, Girl on the Train—most of which have been on the shelves for five or more years. (Girl on the Train, published in 2015, is the most recent.) 

So far in 2017, no new fiction releases have had near the success of any of those titles. On Amazon’s list of the 20 best-selling books of the year, only six are novels and not one was published this year. Two of them, The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984, came out last century.

Paul Bogaards, an executive vice president at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, said many readers are “weary from their social feeds—mentally exhausted—and some, perhaps, are simply choosing to binge watch their favorite television series and eat copious amounts of ice cream rather than read a contemporary, literary novel.” 

Fiction’s best bet for a comeback this year could lie with popular novels such as John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, Dan Brown’s Origin, John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies, or Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties, all due out this fall. —L.L.

Associated Press/Industrial Light & Magic/Lucasfilm Associated Press/Industrial Light & Magic/Lucasfilm A scene from The Last Jedi

The hype awakens

Disney kicks off its marathon marketing blitz for the next Star Wars movie with the Friday release of a high-tech, force-friendly game. The Star Wars app will feature an interactive treasure hunt similar to Pokémon Go, in which players can discover a new character from the upcoming movie The Last Jedi. Disney and Lenovo also will unveil a new headset for an “augmented reality” game. It’s similar to virtual reality, but it incorporates players’ surroundings so it feels like the game is in the room with them. In coming months, stores will unveil Star Wars–themed toys from basic action figures to $149 remote-controlled droids. The Last Jedi hits theaters Dec. 15 and carries on the story arc that began in 2015’s The Force Awakens. —L.L.

The rights to Ryan

Tom Clancy’s widow is suing to give the exclusive rights to her husband’s famous character Jack Ryan to his estate. Clancy first introduced Ryan, a professor-turned-spy during the Cold War, in the 1984 book The Hunt for Red October. Alexandra Clancy is suing the personal representative of Clancy’s estate, J.W. Thompson Webb, for allowing other entities to profit from posthumous book revenues. Clancy’s first wife, Wanda King, is a partial owner of those other entities. “Tom Clancy made Jack Ryan; and in a sense, Jack Ryan made Tom Clancy,” the lawsuit says. Clancy died in 2013. —L.L.

Another close encounter

Steven Spielberg’s alien invasion tour de force Close Encounters of the Third Kind has been rereleased across the country in honor of its 40th anniversary. The movie was remastered for better sound and visual quality and will only be in theaters for a week. —L.L.

Wasted investment

The video below, compiled by Business Insider, shows how the Olympic venues in Rio de Janeiro have gone to rot and waste just one year after the last summer games. —L.L.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital assistant editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 09/03/2017 09:15 am

    Some thoughts:

    *  Conservative pundits need to tone down their rhetoric, because it feeds the current brush fire.  Rather than accuse the Orpheum of extreme political correctness, Starnes and Limbaugh should offer solutions.  One would be to incorporate post-viewing dialogue after annual screenings of Gone with the Wind.

    *  Go away, girl.

    *  Augmented reality will be worse than cocaine.

    *  How sad, that there remains bitterness between Clancy's widow and ex-wife.  Divorce divides, even in death.

    *  Never seen Close Encounters, never will.  Too wierd for me.  (I didn't like E.T., either.)

    *  Please, Philadelphia, don't ever host the Olympics!

  • Xion's picture
    Posted: Thu, 09/14/2017 02:23 am

    Calling Gone with the Wind an artifact of exploitation condemns all of history to be thrown onto the scrap heap of political correctness.  Let us remove all memorials of the holocaust and 911 and of every who sinned in any way if we are to be consistent.  The people who tear down Robert E Lee are the same people who revere Marx and Che.  Evil as defined by the left is anything that is not to the left.