Filmmaker Pamela Roberts on the Making of Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel

March 30th, 2012

Filmmaker Pamela Roberts with Ira Joe Johnson, who, in revealing a historical secret about Margaret Mitchell, sparked her interest in the iconic author. Photo courtesy of Pamela Roberts.

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with filmmaker Pamela Roberts, whose upcoming American Masters film Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel delves into the fascinating life of one of America’s most compelling authors. Roberts shares what first drew her to the literary icon, and the complexities and challenges she faced in making the film.

Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel premieres Monday, April 2 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN. Enter our giveaway for a chance to win anniversary edition DVDs, books, and more, and visit American Masters on Facebook for polls and discussions relating to the film.

Inside Thirteen: Were you always a fan of Gone With the Wind? What inspired you to make this film?

Pamela Roberts: I liked the movie but had never read the book. I didn’t think a thing about the movie or Gone with the Wind…having seen it as a much younger person, I just left it where it was, and that was that. Then I got a call about four years ago from a man named Ira Joe Johnson, who is featured in the film, asking if I knew of the secret history related to Margaret Mitchell and her connection with funding African American higher education in the South, especially for doctors. Johnson went to Morehouse College, which is a very good college for black men in the South. Dr. Benjamin Mays was the president of the college in the early 1940s, just after Gone with the Wind had come out. It was well known that Margaret Mitchell was rich, so Mays approached her secretly and asked her to help fund African American education, especially for blacks who dreamed of becoming doctors in the South. Mitchell agreed to do it, and did it until she died. Throughout the 1940s, she secretly gave money to educate dozens of African American doctors. She was taking a huge risk because it was a very difficult time racially in the South – if her secret philanthropy had been discovered, she probably would have been killed. So here is a person who wrote a racially controversial book in her mid-twenties and who later risked her life to give to the black community. I wanted to understand Mitchell’s amazing odyssey, the arc of change in her life – that’s what interested me and why we did it.

IT: How do you think Margaret’s tomboyish upbringing shaped her identity as an adult?

PR: Her mother, Maybelle, allowed Mitchell to be herself. Even though they had a difficult relationship in a lot of ways, Maybelle understood that she had a special kid, and Margaret was allowed to be Margaret. She wore pants and was allowed to be one of the boys, which just didn’t happen back then, in the Victorian era.

When Maybelle died, Margaret’s father and her brother frowned upon the way she behaved. Maybelle was an early feminist and had a huge impact on Mitchell’s life. But she did have blinders – in her deathbed letter, she still stressed to Mitchell that she had to be a wife and a mother first, before she could be her own person.

IT: How much of herself did Margaret Mitchell put into her characters? Or those she knew?

PR: I would say Mitchell is a combination of Scarlett O’Hara and Melanie Wilkes. Scarlett represented the New South, the willingness to adapt to a new and more progressive way of life in order to survive. Melanie, with her genteel manners and kindness, lived in a dream world that no longer existed. Like the Antebellum South, Melanie did not survive. Mitchell and Scarlet were both rebels who fought against restrictions placed on women but Mitchell also appreciated the beauty of the Old South as represented by Melanie. Mitchell’s genius lay in her creation of complex, well-rounded characters who were neither all good or all bad. She understood that it took a ruthless and cunning Scarlett O’Hara to accomplish what she did, and a Rhett Butler who could see the truth of the Southern situation and still be part of it.

I think Mitchell understood humanity. Is she one of these characters? She’s not entirely; she’s a real creator, so she’s not just going to make her life into Scarlett O’Hara. The interesting thing the biographers said is that some of Mitchell’s mother, Maybelle, got translated into Rhett Butler – I was shocked by that at first and then realized it was true. If you look at statements in Gone with the Wind that Rhett Butler makes about how the Southerners had blinders on – they thought they had this great way of being that nobody could undermine, they didn’t see that the only way to survive was to change, to be more like the industrial North, and that the era of cotton and slaves was really over. Mitchell as a child learned a similar lesson from her mother which she later wrote about, and at one point in our film Maybelle tells Mitchell, “You’ve got to understand that this world is not going to last – it’s going to be upended and you’ve got to be ready for it.”

In this reenactment from the film, Margaret Mitchell (played by Atlanta journalist Katie Leslie) begins writing Gone With the Wind at her apartment in Atlanta. Photo courtesy of Georgia Public Broadcasting.

IT: How did you decide on the format of the film – to feature actors and re-enactments?

PR: We did have a lot of photos and a lot of good archival material on Margaret Mitchell, but photos can’t really reveal the depth and emotional complexity of one’s life. Plus, what was great is that we had her journals and her letters, so we were able to base the reenactments on what she felt about her life, and I think we were able to hit the emotional highlights that way. I felt comfortable that I was not making stuff up out of nowhere – I based it out of her own writings.

The woman who played Margaret Mitchell is an actual reporter for The Atlanta Journal Constitution, just like Margaret Mitchell was! When I met Katie Leslie at a press conference, I thought, “She’s an absolute dead wringer for Margaret Mitchell!” She’s a major reporter here in Atlanta, so it’s interesting that we got a reporter to play a reporter.

IT: Why do you think Mitchell asked her husband to burn the original Gone With the Wind manuscript upon her death?

PR: Honestly, that is still not really understood. There are a lot of things about Margaret Mitchell that we’ll never ultimately know why. There was some controversy because it was such a big book for a first-time novelist. It was a runaway best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize. People thought, “This just came out of nowhere, did she really write this? Maybe her husband, John Marsh, wrote the book. Maybe somebody at Macmillan helped her. Or her father, since he founded the Atlanta Historical Society. But surely this little woman couldn’t have done the whole thing!” Her husband John Marsh, who was her editor, wrote a letter to his mother telling her not to believe the rumors that he wrote the book. But people refused to understand. It hurt Mitchell’s feelings terribly. In the margins of the original manuscript were Marsh’s corrections, and at one point two or three pages were exhibited in the Atlanta Public Library. People jumped to the conclusion that her husband must have done more than just edit the book. Mitchell probably didn’t want people taking the manuscript apart, which she knew they would, and just analyzing every aspect of it to try to prove that she didn’t write it.

While the original manuscript was destroyed, the revised manuscript she did for Macmillan that eventually became the novel was not. And John Marsh did save chapters. He knew that people would still be challenging her authorship, and he didn’t want that.

IT: What do you think led Mitchell to change her views on race and segregation?

PR: She might have been slowly evolving, but when Hattie McDaniel and the other black actors couldn’t come to Atlanta for the movie premiere, and when McDaniel couldn’t sit at the same table as the rest of the cast at the Oscars, I think Mitchell felt guilty. She wrote to McDaniel at four in the morning on the day after the premiere. She saw how much McDaniel had accomplished and how she was still being mistreated. There is additional correspondence between the two of them that has only recently been discovered – they stayed in touch for a long time and they really respected each other.

IT: What was the most challenging part of making this film?

PR: The most challenging part is when experts and biographers differ on things. For Public Broadcasting, you want to make sure you’re not misrepresenting anything. Ultimately, you have to make your own decision – you can’t be on the fence about it. I go through that with every project, but this one was bigger.

When I decided to tell the Smith College story in which Mitchell refused to be in class with a black student, I got some criticism, and there were two or three experts who told me not to include it. But that information came from a letter Mitchell wrote to her mother, so we know it happened. So it was also a matter of being willing to shatter some of the precious myths that people hold about Margaret Mitchell. She was not a perfect person and she would be the first to admit it.

The other thing is that the estate of Margaret Mitchell had to approve what I was doing, so I had a nail biting time when I told them what I was working on, including telling some unpleasant truths. You have to have a lot of guts to do a project with controversy in it. I also knew that in a lot of ways, Margaret Mitchell didn’t want all this dug up! She wasn’t comfortable being this huge icon. She didn’t see herself that way, but the South chose to see her that way, and her life was in some ways virtually shattered by Gone with the Wind. She enjoyed being just a member of her community; it was very important to her to be a normal person. She couldn’t be that anymore, and she hated every part of it. She was a true rebel, but not so much in the Southern sense as in the larger sense – hence the title, Margaret Mitchell: American Rebel.