I watched Gone With The Wind at the TIFF Bell Lightbox last night and seeing that film on the big screen was just as great as I thought it would be. (I had only seen it once before when I watched it on my computer screen – not ideal.) The only word that I can use to describe this story of the Old South is epic. Both in the frame of time it covers and the awesome scale of ambitious cinematography.
Prior to the screening Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, author of Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity, gave a brief talk outlining the importance of GWTW in the history of Black actors, and in the rocky middle ground Hollywood was trying to navigate between hiring Black actors, while at the same time not straying too far from the segregation norms of the time.
Three interesting facts on the topic:
- The film premiered in Atlanta, Georgia in December of 1939. The original pamphlets printed up for the event had a picture of Hattie McDaniel (she portrayed Mammy in the film) on the back cover. The pamphlet also prominently displayed pictures of the rest of the major (white) actors. Since they were shown in this pamphlet as themselves, rather than the characters they portrayed in the film, the notion of placing McDaniel at the same professional actor level as someone like Vivien Leigh or Clark Gable was rethought and her picture was replaced with a white actor’s who had a much more minor role in the film.
- David O. Selznick, the producer of the film, was superficially concerned with how his use of Black actors would be seen by the Black community. I say superficially because, as Stewart pointed out during her lecture, Selznick often spoke of hiring individuals from the Black community to act as advisors for the film, but never actually followed through. He did however, request that the Black actors involved with the film, write personal articles about how great the set of GWTW was and then plant these in prominent community newspapers and other media outlets.
- Finally, at the Oscar ceremony that honored McDaniel in the Best Supporting Actress category she was ushered in with the rest of the white cast and sat at their table, along with Selznick, long enough for photographs and brief mingling before being relocated to her own table in the segregated portion of the ballroom.
Needless to say it was a difficult time to be a Black actor in Hollywood. On the one hand these roles were often based in extreme stereotypes and would be criticized by the Black community, on the other hand, everyone wants a job. As McDaniel is quoted as once saying “I would rather play a maid, than be one.”