It is hard to overestimate the influence of Gone with the Wind in production design. After all, the term “production designer” was coined for William Cameron Menzies, the designer of this film. Through three directors, three cinematographers, almost one year of shooting and dozens of sets built on soundstages and backlots, Menzies created lavish ballrooms, bloody battlefields, and the great fire of Atlanta in gloriously horrific detail, burning down real sets (albeit revamped obsolete sets from King Kong). Above all, Menzies held the whole project together, both in practical and visual terms, through the constant production battles raging in the background.
Therefore, when decorating our brand-new studios in the university where I teach production design, it seemed appropriate that one of the posters should be of Gone with the Wind. I was never comfortable with the portrayal of black people in the film. But I always saw it within the context of its time; it was made at a time when segregation was still part of everyday life in the US, and was set in an era of endemic racism. I also naively thought it was just an archetypal “love in the midst of war” story that wasn’t as sickeningly racist as, say, Birth of a Nation, or the blackface minstrel musicals of the twenties and thirties.
I realise now that I was wrong. I was looking at Gone with the Wind through the wrong lens. Being white middle class, I could not see it the way a black viewer could. And perhaps I was all too eager to push the issues of race under the carpet, so I could focus on the “big picture” and celebrate the brilliance of Menzies. But there are more important issues at play here. That’s why the poster is coming down from our wall as soon as we return from summer break.
Tackling the issue of representation of black people in our industry is not as simple as taking down a poster, or removing Gone with the Wind from streaming platforms, though. It is a complex and multifaceted issue, including the representation of black and ethnic minority people in films, the roles they are given as actors and the lack thereof. There is also the shameful lack of BAME people in film crews and art departments, especially in the UK. Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, was absolutely right to be furious about this in his recent Guardian article.
Steve McQueen says in his article that there should be more apprenticeships for black people within the industry. I agree. At university, we genuinely try to recruit more students of BAME background, but we are failing. If you look at the statistics, of the 146.000 students studying in creative arts and design in the UK (2018/19), only about 24.000 were from a BAME background. I have a feeling that in film-related subjects, the difference is even wider. I looked at the offers made to applicants in my university in the same year: 76% to white students compared to 70% to BAME students. This shows that although there’s work to be done in this regard, the number of offers does not justify the huge disparity. There are obviously wider social and financial reasons for it, and a deep class divide that prevents young black people from even considering a career in creative arts and design. This is something that requires deep interventions within society, and at a very early stage in our education system. Universities or film and TV production companies cannot do this alone. It can only be done at government level – providing, of course, there is a government willing to prioritise this issue.
It took 80 years after Menzies received his production design title for the first black production designer to win an Oscar in 2019. Hopefully, someday soon there will be a government willing to put their hands deep in their pockets and address the inequalities in our society that prevent black people from finding their way into films and the crews that make them. Until then, what we can do is nurture and promote black talent wherever we can, and of course, vote the right people in. And take down those posters.