The Fall of Gone with the Wind (and of its poster)

William Cameron Menzies in the art department of Gone With The Wind (1939)

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.

Coming down: the poster of Gone With The Wind (1939)

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
Steve McQueen with his Oscar for best film for 12 Years a Slave.

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.

Hannah Beachler, the first black production designer to win an Oscar.

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.

About coolness

Steve McQueen in Bullitt (1968)

There is a scene in Bullitt (1968) where Jacqueline Bisset asks Steve McQueen, her San Francisco police lieutenant boyfriend, to stop the car and let her out; she is disgusted by his daily dealings with violence and death. “Do you realize you live in the sewer?” she says, and then: “What will happen to us in time?”. Steve McQueen looks her in the eyes and replies: “Time starts now”. He then goes back to his gruesome line of work with even more vigour, and comes back to his home after a night of more death and violence, to find Bisset sleeping peacefully in his bed.

When I was a film student, someone in my class asked: “Who is the coolest actor ever?” It started a discussion that generated a lot of interesting answers (including David Hasselhoff, which made everybody laugh). This was in 1998, long before social media and internet polls, and I don’t remember ever having read or thought about the subject of coolness in cinema until then. Nevertheless, I gave an answer that everybody seemed to agree with: Steve McQueen. Since then, I have been thinking about Bullitt and McQueen’s laconic answer, and what constitutes coolness in cinema.

Most people tend to confuse coolness with good looks; although it definitely helps to be easy on the eye, there are a lot of good looking actors that are definitely on the wrong side of cool. Other people attribute coolness to attire, style and dress sense. This is also debatable, in my opinion. Look at the various actors that have played James Bond, consistently the most stylishly (and expensively) dressed secret agent in the history of cinema. They include the ultra-cool Sean Connery as well as the hapless George Lazenby, even though they all wore Savile Row-tailored suits, and the most expensive of watches and accessories. And deep down, we all know that no matter how hard the merchants of cool will try to convince us that wearing Bond’s sunglasses will make us by association as cool as Bond, unfortunately this is not the case.


George Lazenby

So if coolness is not about the clothes, the looks and the style, what is it actually about? Well, it is about several things, according to research from the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2012. People perceived as cool seem to navigate through life’s adversities effortlessly. They don’t feel they have anything to prove, they are not fazed by flattery or intimidation, and they operate in the most difficult circumstances with a confidence that for most of us is unattainable.  Kind of like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca; his bar is a snake pit of political and emotional intrigue, but he manages to negotiate all the difficulties of war and romantic love with ease, and do the right thing in the end.

But I believe the clue about true cinematic cool is in Steve McQueen’s answer in Bullitt. The coolest of actors and cinematic characters are down to earth, understated and uncompromisingly on the side of the righteous. They are determined to make the world a better place and they will never stop until they achieve it. Look at Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Bruised, beaten and battered, he goes on and on, despite the brutal punishment by the corrupt union bosses, to stand up for justice and for what he believes is the right thing to do. So does McQueen in Bullitt. In doing so, these actors provide us with the reassurance that everything will be OK in the end. That no matter how deep in the sewer we are, things will be better in time. And we don’t have to wait too long until then. Because in cinema “Time starts now”.

What is cooler than that?


Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1942)