The most controversial aspect of Gone With the Wind is the film’s depiction of race relations. Though freed from the novel’s positive portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan, Gone With the Wind’s depiction of slavery remains decidedly simplistic. Adopting historian U. B. Phillip’s “plantation school” view of the institution, the film shows slaves as well-treated, blindly cheerful “darkies” loyal to their benevolent masters. Slaves are portrayed as normal employees, are rewarded with presents like the master’s pocket watch if they’ve been appropriately loyal, and are allowed to scold the young mistress of the house as if they were a part of the family. Big Sam leaves Tara only when ordered and with extreme reluctance and later saves Scarlett at serious risk to his own life.
Although they were rarely acknowledged and there was no talk of pay after their emancipation, the former slaves show no interest in leaving Scarlett. The slaves who choose to seek their freedom are looked down on, either portrayed as unscrupulous or as gullible pawns of the political parties. Though this attitude is less sensationalistic than D. W. Griffith’s far more brutal caricatures of slaves in Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind’s refusal to acknowledge any of the complex racial issues of either the Reconstruction Era or the 1930s only supports the stereotypes presented in Griffith’s film.
More damaging than Gone With the Wind’s simplistic view of slavery, however, is the film’s depiction of all African Americans as stupid and childlike. Mammy manages to escape the film with her dignity largely intact, but Pork, the only named male house slave, is forced to appear in scene after scene with a wide-eyed, slightly glazed expression on his face. When faced with work duties beyond those he has always performed, he immediately becomes overwhelmed and panics. Big Sam’s grammar is chopped down to an extremely simplistic level, far below even that of the equally uneducated Mammy. The worst example of this negative portrayal is the young house slave Prissy. Perhaps intended as comic relief, Prissy is stupid, squeamish, a liar, and becomes hysterical over the smallest things. She is a caricature of a woman, a living holdover from the slaveholder’s old claim that African Americans needed to be slaves because they weren’t able to function on their own. Malcolm X notes in his biography the deep shame he felt as a child when he saw Gone With the Wind, specifically citing Butterfly McQueen’s performance as Prissy. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People tried to arrange a boycott of the film by black audiences and, to a lesser extent, black actors.