Seventy-five years after the premiere of the movie “Gone with the Wind,” research is shedding light on the racial tensions that existed at the time between the producer and city of Atlanta officials.
Emory University film studies professor Matthew Bernstein has conducted extensive research into the archives of the film’s producer, David O. Selznick. His findings illustrate some of Selznick’s concerns with the city’s treatment of the film’s black stars at the Dec. 15, 1939 premiere.
“Producer David O. Selznick was upset that Hattie McDaniel would not be invited to the Atlanta premiere,” said Bernstein. “He argued over and over that she should be allowed.”
McDaniel played the character, Mammy, and went on to become the first black actor to receive an Academy Award for her performance as Best Supporting Actress in 1940.
Selznick was guided by the office of Atlanta’s then-mayor William B. Hartsfield. It was Hartsfield that originally reached out to Selznick to bring the premiere to the city.
But due to the racial segregation laws in the Jim Crow South, none of the movie’s black stars were allowed to attend the premiere or even be included in the movie’s promotional program. McDaniel did attend the Los Angeles premiere and was featured in the program.
“Selznick, because he was Jewish, was very mindful of the persecution of the Jews in Europe in the late-1930s under Nazism,” Bernstein remarks. “And he saw an analogy between that persecution and the life of African-Americans under Jim Crow, especially in the South.”
Bernstein spent years poring over the Harry Ransom Center’s Selznick archive at the University of Texas, Austin. Among the items studied, memos and telegrams exchanged with Selznick’s staff document the extent of his efforts to persuade Atlanta officials to change their minds.
However, Katharine Brown, Selznick’s East Coast assistant and story editor, concedes in a Dec. 8, 1939 letter to Selznick that efforts to include the black cast must end.
“I hope this will not prove to be a dissatisfaction to you but with everyone so touchy, I am trying very hard to use my very best judgment not to create situations,” Brown writes.
In contrast to the city’s treatment of the movie’s black cast, local black organizations performed at various events leading up to the night of the premiere.
“One of the most fascinating things about the festivities is Martin Luther King Jr., when he was 10 years old, actually appeared on stage at a charity ball dressed as a slave in front of a mock-up of Tara singing with the Ebenezer Baptist Church choir,” Bernstein points out.
Steve Klein, a spokesman for the King Center, confirmed the event as a reflection of the times but offered a poignant analogy for the civil- and human-rights icon. “It’s kind of neat that he could go on and be awarded the Nobel Prize.”
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