Friday, March 29, 2013

Thoughts on "Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel"

I tire of apologists for the racism of the past.  Despite the fact that there were plenty of prominent people who weren't racist in the early twentieth century (John Dewey, Eugene Debbs, Eleanor Roosevelt) much less all the non-prominent ones we know nothing of, we are often asked to believe that, good golly, folks just couldn't help but be racist back then.  Horrible racist attitudes were everywhere, yes, but there were people who didn't buy into it.  Those who did, and they were doubtless the majority, well, let's just be honest and say they were racists instead of saying, "You've got to understand, it was different back then."  And so it goes with Margaret Mitchell.

I recently watched the American Masters episode on Mitchell (Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel) and quickly found myself saddened at how much apologia it contains.  Having been produced in 2012, and knowing that nowadays people can simply look up Mitchell on the internet and read about anything the producers might leave out of the program, they wisely include the bad parts but also tend to rationalize them.  There's positive, too.  In the last ten minutes, they focus on her efforts to pay for scholarships for black students at Morehouse College and donate funds to build the first black hospital in Atlanta.  She gave money to Morehouse College upon the request of its president, Benjamin Mays, and this continuing act of giving scholarship money, throughout the rest of her short life, is to be applauded, certainly.  She obviously changed and grew as a person.  Still, there are episodes from her early life that give one pause.

One such episode occurred at Smith College, where Mitchell attended.  When she learned a black student would be in her history class, she demanded to be moved to another class.  Here's how historian Kathleen Clark explains that episode in the documentary:  "Sitting in a classroom with an African-American student offended her understanding of what was an appropriate context for blacks and whites to relate to one another."  Uh-huh.  Here's another way of explaining it:  She was racist.

When her teacher took offense (and good for the teacher), Mitchell wrote to her mother, "I want to know if the teacher of that class has ever undressed or nursed a negro woman, or shielded a negro man from being shot by the police."  Curious.  The documentary reveals no incidents in Mitchell's life of her heroically using her own body to shield a black man from being shot, nor, apparently, did Mitchell ever bring it up again.  So how exactly is this a defense of her actions?  Because the teacher's never done these things, her attitude is hypocritical? Am I to believe Mitchell would risk her very life to save a black man but found sitting in a classroom with a black girl simply too much to bear?  Do I even need to call bullshit on this one?

Mitchell grew up as a well-to-do white woman in the American South and had black domestic help.  The character of Mammy in Gone with the Wind is said to be based on her maid, Bessie.  Her view of black people tended towards them as simple, obedient children that white people looked out for and to whom they generously gave jobs cleaning up after them.  When she wrote her one and only novel, the aforementioned Gone with the Wind, she populated it with demeaning portraits of black people and was shocked, SHOCKED, that the black press hated the book.  She wrote, "They refer to the book as incendiary and negro-baiting.  I do not know where they get such an idea, for as far as I can see, most of the negro characters were people of worth, dignity and rectitude."  Of course, there's not a single black character who speaks out on slavery or isn't completely enamored of the O'Haras and serving them.  Hell, there's not even a black character who just seems a little pissed off or resentful at his or her station in life. As Elizabeth West, historian, states following the Mitchell quote, "Mitchell's black characters are not characters, they're caricatures.  If Gone with the Wind is the last statement about the experience of slavery in America, it would be a horrendous legacy for blacks to live with."

Later, at the premiere for Gone with the Wind in Atlanta, Hattie McDaniel, who received an Academy Award for her performance as Mammy, was absent since Georgia didn't allow black people to attend movies with white people.  This problem is the biggest of them all because David O. Selznick, Clark Gable and Margaret Mitchell (all in attendance) easily had the power to tell Georgia, "she comes to the premiere or we premiere it in Hollywood."  Does anyone really think everyone in Atlanta would boycott the movie if it had premiered in Hollywood instead, or if McDaniel had attended in Atlanta?  Come on, Gone with the Wind was destined for box office records from the moment the cameras first rolled.  In the great documentary, The Battle over Citizen Kane, Jimmy Breslin says this of the studios that caved when Hearst threatened to pull all advertising for RKO and stop promoting its stars: "You know, and those poor fools out there got scared, didn't understand until years later that the movies were more powerful than any newspaper ever could be. But they didn't understand that."  Hollywood could have told the Governor of Georgia to kiss McDaniel's ass in public and he would have done it to make sure the premiere happened.  And that's what is so sad.  No one had the courage to do the right thing, something that, with their standing and power, would've required little courage in the first place. No one stood up for Hattie. At the Oscars, they wouldn't even let her sit at the cast table.

Margaret Mitchell was not a horrible person, no, and yes, her beliefs and attitudes matured as she got older.  She gained more understanding and was willing to help out with the hospital and the scholarships but without letting anyone know.   What the documentary slyly refers to as "quietly" really means "anonymously."  The president of Morehouse, understandably on Mitchell's side given her good relationship with the school, says that if she had revealed publicly that she was helping black students, she may have been killed.  Well, no.  Racist thugs, coming down on the cowardly side and tend to kill children and civil rights workers with low public profiles, not Margaret Mitchell.  What would have happened is she would have set a powerful example for everyone that promoting higher education for all, no matter the race, was a noble goal.  But she didn't and that matters.

There isn't much to recommend this short (56 minutes) biography of Mitchell, unfortunately.  From the requisite voice-overs (something only Ken Burns seems to be good at) with actors who sound ridiculous in their overly-inflected readings, to the parade of talking heads not willing to say anything too challenging about Mitchell, to a rather rushed section on the biggest event of her life, writing Gone with the Wind, it's a sadly dull affair.  And with its consistent whitewashing of Mitchell's life and rationalizations for her more ignoble attitudes, a little insulting.  American Masters often provides insightful and challenging biographies of American artists.  This time, like Rhett Butler's old south, it appears to be a lost cause.


Unknown said...

What a childish review. Please learn something about historical perspective before you write such tripe.

Greg F. said...

I provide historical perspective throughout, including the entire first paragraph. Please learn how to read before leaving such moronic comments. Also, next time you comment, have the dignity to leave your name and e-mail address instead of hiding behind anonymity like a coward. Thank you.

Margaret Benbow said...

Greg, thank you for your thoughtful post. Mitchell was a very intelligent woman, and I agree with you that in time she changed and grew from the former belle whose views toward blacks had been, at best, condescending. I'd like to believe that her generous donations to Morehouse college were done "quietly" because she didn't want to trumpet her generosity. But we'll never know. You're right that in GWTW she does often paint blacks as in need of intelligent direction from their owners, which infantilizes them; but it's interesting that the people she really hates on are "poor white trash," like the Slatterys, whom she portrays as entirely worthless and even evil. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the planter class despised poor whites so much because, a couple generations back, that is what their families came from.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this post! I am slogging my way through "Gone With the Wind" this summer. . .and keep finding myself muttering, "#($% you, Margaret Mitchell." It's really dispiriting (though not surprising) that this thoroughly racist book is such a favorite, and won the Pulitzer to boot. I didn't know anything about MM, and appreciated your write-up.