Gone with the Wind (1939)

I swear this moment never happened in the film 

So, this is one of those classic films that you think you know because you’ve seen so many parodies and heard catchphrases (“Fiddle-dee-dee!” and “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”), but when you actually sit down and watch all four hours of it, you realize that you never had a clue what it was about. But the weirdest thing about it? The whole movie is this nostalgic paean to the Old South, i.e., antebellum South. Which is to say it’s about the good ol’ days of slavery.

Not that they say this in so many words, of course. Sure, there are a number of black characters – more than I might have expected, to be honest. The fact of their being slaves is practically ignored. Those that we see in greater detail, like Mammy, are portrayed as loyal to the O’Hara family, before and after the war. It’s entirely unclear how or whether they made the transition from “house servant” to “paid staff,” but then, there’s certainly not time enough in this epic to answer a little question like that.

Granted, I viewed this in the context of having recently watched 12 Years a Slave, so I was highly skeptical of the general attitude of Gone’s characters, who seem convinced that they treated their slaves fairly. There’s even an awkward moment where somebody objects to employing white convicts because they’re treated worse than they’d treated slaves before the war. Huh?

Slavery aside, this movie is all about Scarlett and Rhett. Romance of the century, right? At least, that’s what I thought. If this is a romantic movie, it’s the most depressing one I’ve ever seen. Rhett’s kind of a terrible person, which maybe isn’t as bad as it sounds since Scarlett is about as bad. Never once do they seem more than vaguely fond of each other, usually alternating between apathy or hatred or boredom. Maybe you can’t expect much when they met at a barbecue unlike any I’ve ever been to. Not a damn rib in sight.

Even as Scarlett was often unlikeable, she did hold her own in a male-dominated world, which is kind of admirable for a movie from 1939. She navigated a post-slavery economy with skill, starting her own lumber business and rebuilding that enormous staircase (though they had to cut corners when it came to safety railing). But still, Dorothy Gale she is not.

I don’t know if this is an artifact of the era, but this movie ended up like a friggin’ Shakespearean tragedy what with the death count – and I’m talking about after the war. For a movie this long, I wish they could have come up with a better setup besides this:

“Oh, I hope [something bad] doesn’t happen.”

*Everybody stands around and waits*

[Something bad] happens.

I’d feared before I started this project that I would quickly grow to regret the hours lost to movies I wasn’t sure I’d wanted to see. This is just the type of movie I was thinking of.

 

Theme: Plantation

First time watching? Yes

Loved It/Liked It/Hated It – Don’t Give a Damn

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12 Years a Slave (2013)

 

A few years ago, my coworker related a funny scene from a movie she liked – I can’t remember what it was – and asked me whether I’d seen it. I answered, off-the-cuff, “Oh, I don’t watch black movies.” It sounded pretty bad, and she didn’t hesitate to call me out on it. Later, the line became a bit of a running joke between us, in those moments when the topic of race came up in conversation.

Of course, what I meant was something along the lines of “I don’t watch movies at all, really, including but not limited to comedies predominantly featuring black actors of the sort you’re describing, maybe in part because I don’t get some of the jokes.” But I suppose I also meant “I don’t watch black movies.”

What makes a black movie, anyway? Is 12 Years a Slave a black film, because it stars black actors, or was directed by a black man, or because it tells a story that is distinctly and uniquely a Black American experience? (That director, incidentally, is also British.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup is amazing in this role. Some of the most powerful moments are those with no dialogue or action; we’re left only to contemplate the shock on Solomon’s face as he tries to recognize the reality of his situation, the absurdity of it. We linger long on his near-lynching, see the background as people gradually resume their activities in the background, not daring to approach the man dangling on the end of the rope. It’s a frightening world, with little compassion or humanity – even sometimes among the slaves, who are themselves clinging to survival however they can.

This is a difficult movie to watch. It’s heart-wrenching, and even though it kind of has a happy ending, at least in the sense that Solomon returns home, the viewer is left with a sense of nausea at the idea of all those slaves who suffered this life. Maybe the hardest thing for me to fathom was the sheer resilience that kept them alive despite the hopelessness of their life. I recall reading something recently about modern-day plantation tours, where (white) tourists often asked, “But they treated the slaves well, right?”

Well, we even get a look at that question, in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is great as Sherlock, but I had no idea what to make of his accent here). BC plays Ford, Solomon’s first slaveholder, and he’s portrayed as almost benevolent. He takes Solomon’s expertise into account, and praises him for his work. You’d almost think he’s one of those kindly slaveowners. When Ford sells Solomon, he portrays himself as stuck in a system beyond his control. He has debts, he protests, and so as much as he’d like to keep Solomon, he has no choice. In the end, Solomon is still just property to discard.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ongoing controversy around diversity in Hollywood and at the Oscars. Something in it also forces me to question my decision to focus on Oscar-winning films for a year. By choosing to watch these movies – not only, but realistically, how many movies can you watch in a year? – I am also choosing to not watch others. And if the Oscars has excluded minority artists throughout much of its history, then what else am I missing? I do still feel that it’s worthwhile to watch canonical movies, but also recognize the value of delving deeper to appreciate things outside the mainstream, which are often also outside white culture.

My last blog post drew an interesting reaction (interesting, for starters, that I got a reaction at all). Somebody reacted negatively to my critique of Dances with Wolves, or not so much the movie itself, but in context with the Oscars diversity issue. He suggested that great art will find its audience, which is a nice sentiment – but I don’t think history supports it.

Great art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, unless the cleaning crew at the gallery made a grave mistake. Art is made by people, and exists in conversation between its creator (who carries a history of his/her own experience and interpretation) and the audience it finds. Engaging with art requires asking questions of all kinds, probably starting with, “Why I am reacting to this the way I am?” You do a disservice to yourself to limit your encounters with art (of any kind – writing, fine art, music) to things that resonate with your own experience.

When watching this film, I asked myself, what audience is this meant for, and for what reaction? It’s a difficult movie to watch, filled with white characters that are loathsome. There’s a sense of distance that I feel as a white person watching these figures, who are so blatantly racist and cruel. And yet, I can’t help seeing parallels in our present day. How many of us white people are well-intentioned and yet still blind to many of the painful realities of living as a Black American today?

This post, as it turns out, isn’t really about 12 Years a Slave much at all. It’s an incredible film, and certainly worth looking at in greater detail, but I think others have probably done that better than I can do. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a disservice to the movie that I’ve spent my time discussing the context in which I’ve experienced it. Maybe I don’t watch black movies. But maybe I should try harder to do so and see what I can learn.

Theme:  Plantation

First Time Watching?  Yes

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it – Thank God Almighty We Are Free at Last