“GWTW” author’s evolution on race provides a fascinating focal point for new GPB “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel” doc premiering tonight

Perhaps like many “Gone With the Wind” weary Atlantans, GPB executive director Teya Ryan openly admits to being “lukewarm” to producing an in-house original documentary on the life and career of the novel’s Atlanta author Margaret Mitchell. “I thought the idea was kind of old, kind of passe,” Ryan said during a recent advance media screening of the beautifully produced film directed and written by Pamela Roberts. The documentary premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on GPB followed at 9 p.m. with an encore presentation and a simultaneous online chat with Roberts on GPB.org.
While “GWTW” remains one of the all-time best-selling books (right up there with the Bible), due to its now sometimes cringe-worthy stance on race, it is also one of the most polarizing and problematic books as well. In 2011,  the novel and the subsequent film version of “GWTW” arrive with enough baggage that it could likely only be surpassed by Scarlett O’Hara’s return to Tara after a shopping spree in Atlanta.
“But that’s the brilliance of Pamela,” Ryan recalled. “She kept hounding us gracefully. Every time she uncovered something new in her research, we all got more invested in the process.” To Roberts’ credit, not only is “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel” a gorgeous looking film, chock-full of fascinating new factoids about the author’s life and rich painstakingly researched historical reenactments (is that AJC reporter Katie Leslie playing the writer with her fingers poised over the home row keys of Mitchell’s old Remington manual typewriter??), she doesn’t hide the fact that Mitchell was a product of her era.
As author and film critic Molly Haskell observes in the doc, “Margaret Mitchell was 10 years old before she realized the South actually lost the Civil War.” As a student at Smith College, the film includes a letter Mitchell wrote to her mother after she refused to attend class with an African-American student. But “Rebel” also chronicles Mitchell’s post-“GWTW” later years and her  pre-Oprah Winfrey era secret scholarship donations to Morehouse College (the generous checks and correspondence between Mitchell and Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin Mays were cloaked in secrecy and delivered back and forth via a Morehouse student courier).
“‘Gone With the Wind’ is a polarizing novel,” Roberts explained. “It always has been and it continues to be. It’s the elephant in the room. We need to talk about it.” Thanks to “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel,” that conversation will likely go global. With “GWTW’s” popularity overseas, GPB is in talks to feature the film on television internationally and nationally on PBS. “We think there will be an enormous audience for this,” said Ryan.
Like “GWTW,” Atlanta’s stamp is all over the documentary, from the crew that worked on it to the local experts interviewed in it to the offspring of staffers who play Mitchell as a child in the film. Said Roberts to the friends and family gathered for the advance peek this month: “It doesn’t just take a village, it takes a dad gum city to make a documentary like this. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
For behind the scenes info, footage that was cut from the film’s final edit and a multimedia tour of the doc, go to the GPB homepage for “Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel” here.