This week HBO Max announced that it is pulling the 1939 classic film ‘Gone With The Wind’ from its streaming service amidst the racial turmoil gripping the nation. This is not a new issue, over the past decades debate has swirled over erasing or retiring problematic art, be it statues, books, or movies. But in this case the cancellation has a unique and almost cruel twist. The first black actor to ever win an Oscar did so for her part in ‘Gone With Wind,’ and she does not deserve to have that performance disappeared.
Hattie McDaniel is one the greatest and most inspiring success stories in Hollywood history. But hers is a story we have become uncomfortable telling, which is very sad. Born of parents who had both been slaves, her father a Union soldier in the Civil War, McDaniel cut her teeth and earned her chops originally in early 20th Century Minstrel Shows.
That is a part of American entertainment history that has been canceled because in many cases the performers were white people in black face. But the truth is far more complicated. Minstrelsy is also where a good number of black performers, including McDaniel learned their craft. It is a musical and performing style that would help to usher in the explosion of black artistic talent that dominated so much of entertainment by the mid 20th Century.
But now it is no longer sufficient to erase the Minstrel Show, now the performance that netted the first Academy Award for a black actor must also be toppled and hid away like some statue of a Confederate general. It is a very sad travesty. McDaniel was an artist, before anything else. Her life’s work was to bring characters to life and entertain, and she was a master at it. Are we really going to stop people from seeing her work because it doesn’t match up with contemporary mores about race?
This is truly a case where the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. This is part of a broader erasure of black performers from the first decades of the 20th Century. These were absolute trailblazers who by the way were not unaware of the unequal treatment they received. But their perseverance opened the door for actors of every race to eventually play major roles in the American entertainment culture.
HBO promises that the ‘Gone With The Wind’ will return, eventually placed in some kind of context. Perhaps a panel discussion appended to the movie, or a warning label, who really knows? But who are they protecting and from what? Americans know that slavery was brutal and evil; they aren’t going to watch the movie and suddenly think it was fine. Trust people to contextualize the material themselves.
To add a bit of insult to injury, today is Hattie McDaniel’s birthday. June 10, 1893. That we can watch this phenomenal award-winning performance from a child of slaves is little short of a miracle. Today McDaniel, with her talent and timing might be one of the most famous leading black actors in the world. But without her incredible supporting performances, today’s superstars may never have gotten that chance. Let us watch her work.