Originally published in Socialist Appeal, 30 December 1939.
Republished in Scott McLemee (ed.), C.L.R. James on the “Negro Question”, Jackson (Miss.) 1996, pp. 51–53.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Eighty million Americans visit the cinema every week, and in the course of the next year or so, perhaps ninety million will see the film Gone With the Wind. Millions will get from this film their most powerful impression of the greatest civil war in history and one of the decisive turning points in modern history.
What will they see? At the very start we are informed that the film is a tribute to the “grace and gallantry” of a vanished civilization “the age of chivalry.” The South was a “land of grace and plenty” (our quotations are literal). The Civil War took place, God knows why: as far as can be made out from the film, owing to the hotheadedness and chivalrous gallantry of the Southern cavaliers; and the Southerners lost because, blinded by their excessively martial qualities, they did not notice that they had no munitions factories.
Of the slaves themselves, old O’Hara tells Scarlett, “You must be firm, but you must be gentle, especially with darkies.” And Negroes, not only the house-servants but the field hands, are all faithful unto death. Negroes are all right – so long as they are kept in their places. Of the old Negro mammy, Rhett Butler says that there are few persons whose respect he so much values. When Scarlett O’Hara sees the faithful Negro man-servant in tears, she says, “I can stand anybody’s tears but yours.” When Ashley remonstrates with Scarlett, about exploiting white convicts, she retorts that he wasn’t so particular about owning slaves. Ashley replies that slavery was different: we treated them well, and besides, he intended to free all his. When Scarlett is attacked by louts, a white and a Negro, it is a Negro, a former slave, who rescues her at great danger to himself.
Of the carpetbaggers, robbers of the South in Southern mythology, we get a brief but emphatic indication with a particularly gaudy and fat-looking carpetbag to symbolize Northern rapacity. And, glory be to the God of History, the Negro ex-slave who rescues Scarlett is thankful to leave the South because he has had enough of these carpetbaggers.
Incredible as it may sound, the decisive result of the war, the abolition of slavery, is not directly mentioned in over three hours. The South would not have been able to stand that. And for good reason. As an article by Robert Birchman on Southern agriculture (in the December 1939 issue of New International) shows, the essentials of Negro slavery still remain over large parts of the South.
The picture is a stimulus to the old prejudices and hatred which were the natural outcome of chattel slavery and which must continue on the basis of the sharecropping system of today. Writing in the Amsterdam News of 23 December 1939, St. Clair Bourne notes “the fond illusions of the days of slavery” reinforced in many Southern whites since they have seen the picture at the Atlanta premiere. Bourne reports that a Negro girl who takes care of two little white boys, one of them eight and the other ten, noticed that on the morning after the premiere they acted strangely to her. On being questioned, the elder said he had overheard his parents, who had seen the film, discussing slavery and the Civil War. This small boy continued, “You’d be a slave too, if it wasn’t for the Yankees. And then my Daddy wouldn’t have to pay you ...”
Even in the making of this picture, the natural resentment of the Negroes showed itself. The Pittsburgh Courier claims that the script as originally written was even more offensive to the Negro people and it was only because of the Courier agitation that some of the offending parts were taken out. The Amsterdam News, 18 December 1939, states that during production many Negroes, irritated at the role that was attributed to their people, refused to go on with their parts; there were quarrels and even fist fights.
The historical statements and implications of the picture are false from the beginning to the end. A few thousand slaveholders in the South exploited the millions of slaves, while a few thousand others bred slaves for the slave market as today people breed horses and dogs. If house servants were often treated kindly, the majority, the Negroes in the field, were worked to death and terrorized in order to be kept in submission. By the middle of the nineteenth century the slave system was bankrupt. But the slaveowners wanted to establish their domination over the country in order to shape its course for no other purpose than the maintenance of their rotting and reactionary system. The Northern industrialists, in that age progressive, crushed the South because the South was a check on capitalist production. In the war 220,000 Negroes fought on the Northern side.
That was the Civil War. It is the duty of all revolutionaries wherever possible to point out the gross historical falsifications of this picture, and to do all in their power to counteract the pernicious influence that it is likely to have on the minds of the people, who, knowing no better, may be tempted to accept this as history.
Last updated on 17.7.2011