You Can’t Erase Black People from Civil War History
Hollywood’s slavery problem, from Gone with the Wind to Lincoln.
Lately everyone has been talking about Gone With the Wind and whether a movie from 1939 that romanticizes the South’s slavery past deserves to be celebrated — or even publicly screened — in 2020. Queen Latifah, who played GWTW star Hattie McDaniel in Ryan Murphy’s recent Netflix miniseries Hollywood, said, “Let Gone with the Wind be gone with the wind.”
Cute, but frankly, I’m torn. Yes, GWTW is a mess of a classic, a white fantasy of a South that never existed. But then, so are so many Hollywood movies set during the Civil War era.
I grew up watching ’80s TV miniseries about the Civil War like Beulah Land, The Blue and the Gray and North and South, and they always had two things in common: 1) They romanticized a Deep South that never existed. 2) Black people were basically stereotypical afterthoughts in their own history.
White people and white people problems were the cruxes of those miniseries, as they have been for most Civil War-era movies, from GWTW to Raintree County to Cold Mountain, with the too-rare exception of films like Glory and Django Unchained. GWTW’s saving grace, though, was this: It at least had one black role, a slave named Mammy, that, while as stereotypical as watermelon, fried chicken, and Sambo, was significant enough to make Hattie McDaniel the first black actor to win an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress, which she nabbed over her better-known white costar and fellow nominee Olivia de Havilland).
Quick! Name a black actor or character who appeared in any high-profile Civil War-set movie or TV miniseries not named Glory or Django Unchained since.
And therein lies my biggest problem with Lincoln, the 2012 movie that was released the same year as Django and won Daniel Day-Lewis his third Best Actor Oscar while losing Best Picture to Argo. It is not in danger of being cancelled in these racially fraught times, but it has all of the ingredients of a narrative for which Oscar-winning movies about race are often criticized. It’s basically a showcase for a white actor (Day-Lewis) playing a white savior (Abraham Lincoln).
I love Daniel Day-Lewis — Method madness and all. He deserved all of his five Oscar nominations, at least one of his three wins (for 1989’s My Left Foot, which, incidentally, he won the same year Denzel Washington won Best Supporting Actor for Glory) and probably should have been nominated at least four other times (for My Beautiful Laundrette, A Room with a View, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and The Crucible).
For the fourth of his five Best Actor Oscar bids, Day-Lewis resurrected the troubled, contemplative soul that was the 16th U.S. President while also bringing forth the light, mischievous side we don’t read about in textbooks or see on the penny or $5 bill. Was it third-Oscar worthy? Throughout the movie, I kept thinking of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, which won Peck his only Oscar, so I can see why the Academy took the bait. They love an esteemed white actor playing a white savior.
Missing: Frederick Douglass
There’s no denying that Lincoln was a great man, deserving of his exalted status in American history, but Lincoln didn’t work alone at emancipating the slaves. What about black men like Frederick Douglass, who played a pivotal role in Lincoln’s evolution from a passive opponent of slavery to someone capable of issuing the Emancipation Proclamation?
In Lincoln, we got plenty of scenes with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, who were played, respectively, by Oscar nominees Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones. But what about Douglass, Lincoln’s friend and the man so crucial to convincing Lincoln to allow black soldiers to fight for their own freedom?
Quick! Name the actor who played Douglass. Answer: No one played Douglass.
Despite its nearly invisible black presence, Lincoln was elegantly staged, well-acted — the main players aside, I particularly enjoyed Lee Pace as racist Democratic Congressman Fernando Wood — and surprisingly funny at times. It also gave valuable insight into the little-known (by most) story behind what is perhaps the most pivotal Constitutional amendment, the 13th. Characters made interesting arguments for and against the immediate abolition of slavery, while presenting the shades-of-gray rationale in-between.
For a movie with the Civil War at its center, there just wasn’t a significant enough black presence in Lincoln, not a single black role — or scene — with enough heft for Oscar consideration.
Even Lincoln was presented as being a little shady, the consummate politician, always weighing his options, careful not to swing too far left. In one telling scene (one of only a handful in which a black character says anything of consequence), Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s assistant and a former slave, asks whether he would like to see blacks integrated into white society. People forget that being anti-slavery didn’t necessarily mean you considered black and white to be equal or wanted the two to mix.
People also forget that despite Lincoln’s reputation as the savior of slaves, he was fairly far right of fervent abolitionists like John Brown and Thaddeus Stevens (sort of like Joe Biden to their Bernie Sanders). The movie sidestepped the dissenting contemporary historical opinion that deems Lincoln a racist in his own right, while carefully distancing him from Stevens and his Radical Republicanism.
Poor Stevens. Lincoln presented him in a somewhat unflattering light (ill-fitting wig and all), until he played both sides with his “equality before the law and nothing more” speech to the House of Representatives. The insertion of a throwaway, gratuitous scene near the end of the film of him in bed with his black housekeeper felt like a Cliff Notes explanation of his tireless support for the black cause.
Oh yeah, the black cause. For a movie with the Civil War at its center, there just wasn’t a significant enough black presence in Lincoln, not a single black role — or scene — with enough heft for Oscar consideration. That was a frustrating shortcoming, since the movie was as much about the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, as it was about Lincoln.
As for the war between the states that provided its backdrop, slavery — not states’ rights, as Confederacy apologists would have us believe — was its main theme. Blacks and the Civil War are indivisible. No movie about this era is complete without a major black presence.
For all its flaws, you can’t say Gone with the Wind didn’t have a major black presence. Do I ever want to watch it again? No, not really. But we can’t erase it from movie history without erasing Hattie McDaniel, too.
She wasn’t allowed to sit with her white fellow nominees on Oscar night, but she won anyway. Jim Crow tried to take away her dignity and failed. She was a black pioneer in what up to then had been an almost exclusively white medium, and there should be no canceling the problematic movie that made her legacy possible.
Without McDaniel, there might be no “Oscar-nominated actress” Queen Latifah and no “Oscar winners” Whoopi Goldberg, Halle Berry, Jennifer Hudson, Mo’Nique, Octavia Spencer, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, and Regina King. We need to treasure our firsts and preserve the work that made them firsts. God knows we’ve had to give up too much already.