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  • “Furl that Banner, Softly, Slowly”: Confederate Flags and the Historical Gaze in Gone With the Wind
  • Billy Middleton (bio)

On June 24, 2015, an editorial by columnist Lou Lumenick appeared in the New York Post entitled “‘Gone with the Wind’ should go the way of the Confederate flag.” Published shortly after the murder of nine congregants of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof, Lumenick’s editorial received considerable attention from both supporters and detractors of producer David O. Selznick’s 1939 plantation epic. Among other criticisms, Lumenick compares Gone With the Wind’s portrayal of slavery unfavorably to the more graphic depiction in 12 Years a Slave (2013). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have agreed. The 86th Annual Academy Awards (2014), which named 12 Years a Slave the year’s Best Picture, minimized the seventy-fifth anniversary of GWTW, its own choice for Best Picture of 1939, to focus instead on The Wizard of Oz, also released that year. This snub, along with a recent decision by the Orpheum Theatre Group to remove the film from its programming at the historical Orpheum Theatre in Memphis, Tennessee, suggests that Lumenick’s views are more widespread than expected.

And yet, other voices have advanced more progressive interpretations of the film. Scholars such as Helen Taylor and J.E. Smyth have seized upon heroine Scarlett O’Hara’s resilience as a means of interpreting GWTW as a feminist text. James A. Crank has recently written about the film’s appropriation by the LGBTQ+ community, pointing to “Scarlett O’Hara drag shows” and “themed reenactments . . . in the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco” as celebrations of its status as a “transgressive romance” (95). Riché Richardson has even complicated racial criticisms of the film by arguing that Mammy’s role as arbiter of white female propriety grants her an authority [End Page 153] rare for slave characters in cinema, including other characters in this film. These complex readings demonstrate the multivalent nature of narrative truth in historical texts. Historians, filmmakers, and theorists have noted that cinematic representations of history are particularly ripe for multiple interpretations. D.W. Griffith has boldly proclaimed that filmic history is “at least on a par with the written and spoken word” (qtd. in Smyth 4), and Gore Vidal has declared that “he who screens the history makes the history” (81).

There are a number of reasons that postmodern questions of narrative truth may apply particularly to cinematic representations of history. W. Bryan Rommel-Ruiz has discussed narrative license, arguing that filmic history prioritizes subjectivity—warmth, emotion, narrative—over the principle espoused by historian Leopold von Ranke of pursuing an objective past “as it actually happened” (6). Tom Brown has applied the Lacanian concept of film gaze specifically to historical cinema, highlighting how films such as GWTW use spectacle to create a “historical gaze,” positioning its characters in relation to the history they are living—their present, our past—and giving them some limited foresight into that moment’s place in time (157). In turn, this historical gaze induces audiences to evaluate the onscreen portrayal of history. Because the characters’ present is our past, how they encounter it informs how we interpret the film’s representation of historical record. On these grounds, many critics have argued that GWTW’s embrace of the neo-Confederate Lost Cause narrative of happy, loyal slaves, a utopian antebellum South, and an invading North amounts to “white nostalgia,” a term that Ewa Adamkiewicz, in discussing plantation tourism, has defined as the eschewal of unpleasant complexities in favor of “simplified images and representations” (14).

In this context, Lumenick’s association of GWTW with the Confederate flag makes sense. Many of the recent controversies surrounding the film have arisen amidst new debates regarding the appropriateness of Confederate symbols such as memorial statues and the battle flag in public venues. Indeed, while scholars have thoroughly explored the film’s portrayals of race, gender, and regional politics, the role the flag plays in the film’s discourse on these subjects has been less frequently examined. The Confederate flag (or flags, rather, as there is more than one version...