The Complexities of Old Hollywood Nostalgia
By Alexandra Benson
Old Hollywood is typically reflected upon as a glamorous and romantic lost era that many wish to retrieve. Audrey Hepburn posters litter the walls of teenagers who believe they were born in the wrong period, diners and drive-ins commodify films of the past for a profit, and even contemporary Hollywood recycles “timeless” tropes and concepts. However, these feelings are not reciprocated by marginalized people who see these representations of the past as a form of escapism that only caters to a white narrative. This paper examines those who yearn for a disillusioned America through restorative nostalgia for Old Hollywood films. When these movies are re-contextualized, our society must reconsider the way we view the past. The allure of time travel and restorative nostalgia through these films emit social and political complexities of the past, important factors that we must acknowledge in order to move forward.
Hollywood’s roots in segregation and racial inequality have distorted our perception of what the past is really like. Because white people have had entire control over this medium and have been able to craft it in their vision alone, black people had no spaces in the industry and were horrendously substituted by white actors in blackface. When roles were finally made available to them, not only were they paid nearly a quarter of a white actor’s salary, but they were limited to devalued roles as mammies or slaves. These characters were also stripped of character development, especially in comparison to white counterparts. When the black community revisits these nostalgic films, they either do not see themselves represented or see themselves depicted as a stereotype and caricature. When the white population gazes at the screen, they not only see themselves in all facets of representation but see black people as "the other." Many forget how impactful these representations in pop culture can be to our society; they can have such a robust threshold over our expectations of reality and perceptions of the world. In Ron Briley’s book Hollywood's Reconstruction and the Persistence of Historical Mythmaking, he examines the fundamental role Hollywood has played in the development of our nation's historical consciousness and explained that most Americans tend to develop perceptions of history through film and the media rather than academically. Briley explains how the era of Reconstruction is "shrouded in myth and misconception due to the systemic power white people had (and still have) in the film industry and American society as a whole” (454). The one-sided control of representations in the past set grounds for stereotypical representations of black people that not only harmed opportunities for actors in the industry but shaped a very toxic cycle of misrepresentation, miscommunication, and mythology of black and white people (Briley, 2008).
In “Remembering ‘Gone with the Wind’” an article written by Hilton Als for The New Yorker, the writer provides insight into the conflicting relationship he has with the film from the perspective of a black man. At the beginning of the article, Als evokes nostalgic language, remembering his mother’s adoration of the book, and how the film thrilled him as a child. Als states "for the sake of escapism and artistic value, this epic love story was so grand that it consumed all kinds of viewers." He admits that the artistic and escapist value of the film is so romantic that it encapsulates all viewers, even black ones. However, Als also recalls shameful feelings he had when watching Gone with the Wind. He stated, "I would close my eyes during the movie and wait for many moments to pass," avoiding the harmful portrayals of black characters that he knew were problematic. "While many white people adore this film, black people do not share this privileged nostalgic perspective." Als cannot turn a blind eye when certain scenes are displayed and does not get to fully immerse in the nostalgic experience of a film that associates the color of his skin with such harmful representations. Unfortunately for Als and other people of color, white America does not suffer the same complex relationship with these films. The racist stereotypes and inappropriate representations of black people all take a backseat when white people watch these films; they can fully enjoy the luxury of appreciating the film—and sink into “harmless” nostalgia. White privilege can thus be described as the ability to decide when and how you will be made uncomfortable, extending to semi-conscious moments while watching Old Hollywood films.
Many white movie lovers may consider nostalgic escapism a horizontal unifier—something with which everyone identifies, but it is clear they are misguided. For white people to understand the depth of the issues surrounding film, nostalgia, race, and representation, their understanding of the past must be disrupted. This is not a simple task, as the film industry has conditioned white people to have a distorted sense of how society is supposed to be. In Gone with the Wind, the film displays a varied nostalgic view about the mythologized Old South. Scarlett’s character symbolized the toxicity of the South and Brett’s character represented its redeeming qualities. Scarlett clung to tradition while Brett embraced change. Admitting the Confederacy was wrong—much less racist—would require Scarlett to accept that her faith in the superiority and valor of Southern culture had also been mistaken. The moral case for doing so is clear, but it's quite another thing for individuals and a society to have the capacity to so radically re-imagine themselves (Rosenberg, 2016). Like characters in Gone with the Wind, white people fear disillusionment and change in the status quo, as it disrupts their entire reality and forces them to admit everything they believed in was wrong. The white gaze would rather not bask in a culture hamstrung by a tendency towards wistful self-reflection, and instead, hold onto the possibility of traveling into the past—before political correctness, before the civil rights movement and even before the dismantlement of the Confederacy. Given the mass denial of white people in our society, it's not surprising that contemporary movies are also drowning in nostalgia, clinging to the illusions of an idealized past that never existed. The representation, endorsement, and projection of Old Hollywood films in contemporary society endorse these illusions and ideals of non-existent history and expands from merely an entertainment phenomenon to areas as diverse as political identities.
It’s unfortunate that the realism of our history has been selectively altered through the film industry, because a preference for the misremembered past paves the way for illusions that are particularly harmful to America—a country built on sentimental rhetoric such as the American Dream and Manifest Destiny. The patriotic white sentiment attached to Old Hollywood still resonates with many Americans and may even evoke a longing for when the white agenda was not disillusioned, and complex social and political ideas were not challenged in popular culture. This leads to dangerous expectations for the future, as escapist ideas are desirable to many Americans who feel fear and anger towards the changes happening in our government and society. In the scholarly article “Post-election Surrealism and Nostalgic Racism in the Hands Of Donald Trump" authors Donna Goldstein and Kira Hall analyze a collection of sources that discuss the power that nostalgia has over our society, specifically within the realms of politics and Donald Trump’s backward-looking slogan “Make America Great Again.” The two women believe that “The dreams embraced by many of Trump’s followers appear to extend most directly and exclusively to white people” (Goldstein, Hall, 2017) and that Trump's proposition for returning to an intensified law and order timeframe of Jim Crow racism is passed off as nostalgia. Trump has been able to use nostalgia for a romanticized past to manipulate voters into believing that immigrants, Muslims, political correctness, and the political establishment are what is wrong with the United States, instead of facing the country’s fundamental battle with racial inequality (Goldstein, Hall, 2017). This fear of change and persistence for traditional racist values will prevent our society from ever moving forward and possibly achieving racial equality. Nostalgia for Old Hollywood can be used as a harmful tool in escapist logic—exploited for political agendas—therefore, it must be dealt with carefully in the film industry. If new movies utilize nostalgia for Old Hollywood, It is vital that references to are conducted in a manner that neither condemns the past in its entirety nor reverts to a nostalgic romanization of that past that allows an escape from present historical realities.
Though the white gaze is wrong to hide from the realities of the past and instead bask in escapist nostalgia, attempting to isolate these films from audience members can be just as harmful to society. We must acknowledge the problematic aspects of Old Hollywood nostalgia without delving too deeply into cynicism. We cannot condemn movies like Gone with the Wind that existed in a time of ignorance; these films are a part of our history, and we should not attempt to erase or dispose of any part of our past. We must acknowledge that the issues in these films still exist in our present day and use this archive of historical film as an opportunity for us to learn from their mistakes, educate society, and ultimately move forward. In order to do so, we must examine our history in an accurate context. For example, it would be inappropriate for Gone with The Wind to be celebrated without criticism or context. These films should always require a discussion that follows—a conversation that recognizes artistry without denying apparent racism and other problematic depictions of the past; otherwise, people can embrace and celebrate it without dealing with the whole truth (Rosenberg 2016).
If contemporary Hollywood is to move forward, it needs to start with becoming an inclusive industry that encompasses all facets of representation in an authentic way. Modern movies such as Driving Miss Daisy attempt to show audience members that racism is a thing of the past, but that depiction is not accurate. We must be cautious with how we depict our present historical intricacies by not making the same mistakes of romanticizing our era while omitting social complexities. We must also ensure that black people are given opportunities and space to develop their representations and narratives in the film industry. In the film the Watermelon Woman, director, writer, and star, Cheryl Dunye examined the way old Hollywood "Mammies" were depicted, powerfully re-contextualizing and reclaiming those representations. This film is an excellent example of the type of intersectionality that Hollywood desperately needs and the importance of minorities finally having ownership of their portrayals in society.
Navigating through nostalgia is a slippery slope. It's a struggle to decide whether we should criticize the past or celebrate it, to mourn time's passing or to accept the necessity of moving on, or to continue to learn from and to update elements of the past to the continually changing demands of the present and future. Though there are typically two extreme ends of the spectrum: fantasy and realism, both ultimately result in denial. By indulging in the past as better than the present and longing for time travel, we deny the brutal truths that existed during the time we romanticize. By destroying films that romanticize time periods, we end up with more denial, as the evidence of the past no longer exists. Pop culture can be manipulated and exploited through time, and we must take care of our recollections of the past and not live in a world of illusions. We need not indulge nor relinquish the past entirely, as our perception of memory, time and popular culture is a collective effort that we can change as a society. Together, when taking one step back into nostalgia, we can also take two steps forward into something entirely new.
Als, Hilton. “Remembering ‘Gone with the Wind.’” The New Yorker, 1 July 2011,
Briley, Ron. “Hollywood's Reconstruction and the Persistence of Historical Mythmaking.” The
History Teacher, vol. 41, no. 4, 2008, pp. 453–468. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40543885.
Goldstein, Donna M, and Kira Hall. “Postelection Surrealism and Nostalgic Racism in the Hands
of Donald Trump.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, The University of Chicago Press Journals, 2017, www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.14318/hau7.1.026.
Rosenberg, Alyssa. “Why We Should Keep Reading 'Gone With The Wind'.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 1 July 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2015/07/01/why-we-should-keep-reading-gone-with-the-wind/?utm_term=.47626b18be6f.