AMHERST, Mass. - The 59th anniversary re-release of "Gone With the Wind" June 26 reminds us how far race relations have come – and how far they still have to go, says University of Massachusetts Afro-American studies professor John Bracey.
"When the movie was originally released in 1939, there were fights and protests by blacks in front of many theaters," Bracey says. "It’s still an offensive story, replete with shameful examples of racism. But I can’t imagine anything like that happening now. I don’t think anybody really cares about this film anymore."
Bracey says when "Gone With The Wind" premiered in Atlanta, city officials tried to get local black church members to perform in front of the theater. "The idea was for them to dress as slaves and sing spirituals," Bracey says. "All of the churches turned them down except one – Ebenezer Baptist, where Martin Luther King Sr., the father of Martin Luther King Jr., preached. It’s one of those facts that civil rights historians like to gloss over, but at the premiere of ‘Gone With The Wind,’ the 10-year-old child Martin Luther King Jr., was posed on a cotton bale, dressed as a caricature of an old time ‘darky’ – he was a symbol of the Old South there to entertain the ruling white elite," Bracey says.
Of course, if the white power structure was looking at figures like Martin Luther King, the black population – not allowed in the premiere at all, and forced to enter the theater through a special "Colored" entrance at later dates – would probably have been looking elsewhere, Bracey says.
"Though many black people have always hated most aspects of the film, there is one that they do like, and that’s the character of Rhett Butler," says Bracey. "He’s got style and attitude and tells all of the stuck-up society people who support slavery and white supremacy that he doesn’t give a damn. It’s like Humphrey Bogart during the same period. Bogart was a big hero to many young people in the black community because of his anti-hero status, and his cool, easy, but tough style. There’s even a phrase in black vernacular that grew out of it – ‘to Bogart’ someone or something. That description for copping an attitude has lived on."
Though Bracey says he is aware that some blacks today profess to love the film, he believes this is a complicated reaction that bears further examination. "It probably has something to do with ironically reclaiming the film," Bracey says. "It’s like middle-class black people who collect racist caricatures known euphemistically as ‘black memorabilia.’ They’re showing that they have the power to laugh at what once was degrading – even if it is still degrading in some fundamental, painful sense."