I used to really hate Gone With the Wind. Never read the book, but just a mention of the movie’s name used to make me explode into bits and pieces of rage. I would tell you some of the things I used to say about it, but then you might not like me anymore.
Years later, as I grew more mellow — or perhaps more cynical, dealing with most rage-inspiring events with a shrug and a mumble — the strongest reaction the movie could get out of me was … a shrug and a mumble. Wasn’t anything I could do about it, right? I couldn’t burn all the books. I couldn’t ban the movie. I couldn’t afford to throw my TV against the wall in anger because I didn’t have the cash to buy another one to throw against the wall. So I just shrugged and mumbled every time I heard it was coming on. Again. And again. And again.
A few more years went by and my resistance wore thin. Even a shrug and a mumble cost me too much energy, so I started laughing at it instead. Matter of fact, it wasn’t that many years ago while watching Margaret Mitchell’s epic distortion of history that I found myself just cracking up with laughter. The ludicrous characterizations of the slaves on the fictional plantation — ignorant darkies who didn’t ever want to leave their beloved Tara — was so fantastically sick and twisted that it spilled over the borders of the outrageous into the realm of the comical. Maybe I was losing it (wouldn’t be the first time), but I just didn’t have the energy to be ticked off anymore. I had long ago written off Mitchell as a victim of the sort of brain damage that occurs when one’s love of fantasy supersedes any claim that reality normally exerts over the rational mind. In short, as far as I was concerned the woman was a head case. Why get bent out of shape over a head case?
Now I have a reason. Almost. Have you heard anything about that just-published novel, The Wind Done Gone? It’s a parody of Gone With the Wind written by a black woman named Alice Randall. If you haven’t heard about it, then let me briefly bring you up to speed.
Randall wrote this parody where the essentially same GWTW story is told from the point of view of Cynara, a newly introduced character who happens to be the illegitimate daughter of the white master of a plantation called Tata, and Mammy, one of his slaves. In this version, Randall apparently borrows pretty heavily from GWTW, including many of the same scenes and characters which are supposed to be protected by copyright, and uses them to create a new story that supposedly tells the other side of what life was really like on the old plantation.
I haven’t read the book because it was just released in stores this past weekend, so I’m admitting up front that all I have to go on is what I’ve read about the book. Some critics who apparently have seen an advance copy, such as Laura Miller of salon.com, have torn it apart. Others, such as novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, have said that the story is engaging and well done. Either way, Randall will clean up on this book because of all the advance publicity and controversy that began when lawyers representing Mitchell’s estate, which owns the copyright to Gone With the Wind, tried to prevent Houghton Mifflin’s publication of Randall’s book.
On April 20, U.S. District Judge Charles A. Pannell Jr. sided with the estate and granted an injunction preventing the book’s publication. In response to a statement from Morrison, asking “Who controls how history is imagined? Who gets to say what slavery was like for the slaves?” Pannell responded in his court order, “The question before the court is not who gets to write history, but rather whether Ms. Randall can permeate most of her critical work with the copyrighted characters, plot, and scenes from Gone With the Wind in order to correct the ‘pain, humiliation and outrage’ of the ‘a-historical representation’ of the previous work, while simultaneously criticizing the antebellum and more recent South.”
I was fully prepared to be ticked off all over again. I mean, here you have a judge who was actually ready to go so far in siding with a racist depiction of history that he was willing to shield it from reinterpretation and parody under the guise of copyright protection. I guess racism to some folks is like the family jewels; don’t touch them if you know what’s good for you. And we do know what’s good for you.
But then, on May 25, a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta lifted the injunction. Presiding Judge Stanley Francis Birch Jr., together with Judges Harlington Wood Jr. and Stanley Marcus, attacked the injunction as “an abuse of discretion in that it represents an unlawful prior restraint in violation of the First Amendment.”
Predictably, the distressed lawyers for Margaret Mitchell’s estate are appealing the decision. The full court is expected to review the decision this week. But it’s too late to totally quash distribution as the book is already in stores.
In a letter of support for Randall, a group of 20 well-known writers — including Harper Lee and Shelby Foote Jr. — had this to say:
“The discussion of the painful legacy of slavery is ongoing among American citizens across the nation. Because of the extraordinary popularity of Gone With the Wind and its unique mythic status, Mitchell’s novel has become a prime source of knowledge about plantation life for much of mainstream America. Now is the time for the American public to hear another perspective on this legend.”
I don’t know if I agree that Mitchell’s novel is how most — or even a significant number — of folks have learned about the “true” nature of slavery in America, but I definitely agree that it’s way past time to get another perspective on her perspective. And one more thing; This goes out to Tara lovers as well as those who want to torch the place. Fiction means it didn’t really happen that way, all right? If you really want the truth you’ll have to work a little harder than just watching a movie.
And if you don’t want the truth? Hey, you’re already too far gone.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]