In case you can’t already tell from reading other posts in this blog, I’m marginally fascinated by depictions and conceptions of the region where I live. I say marginally because I’m not obsessed by it, but I am more than a little bit interested. And since films are the major mass media of the 20th century, meaning that many of these depictions occurred on the silver screen, movies form the conceptions that lots of people hold. If you can’t tell what I mean by that, I’ll ask this: how many people outside the South take their ideas about the South from Gone with the Wind or Forrest Gump and how many take their ideas from actual historical or journalistic research?
Of course, these depictions produce, in part, the stereotypes that we’re known for . . . Birth of a Nation was the first ever blockbuster movie hit, in 1915, and that film created a lot of people’s conceptions of what the South was— and is. I took the time a few years ago to watch this movie, and I found it absurd, looking at it nearly a hundred years later. To think that so many people actually bought into the holistic idea that was presented there!
So here are some of my commentaries on ten films that feature the Deep South in their plot lines. I’ve already spent a previous post writing about Smokey and the Bandit so I won’t include that one in this list . . . but that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking about it.
Easy Rider (1969)
I have to start with the 1969 counterculture film Easy Rider because it’s my favorite movie of all time, ever. The entire story is not set in the South, obviously, but the latter parts of the film are. As the bikers Wyatt and Billy and their new pal George are entering the Deep South, the Byrds’ version of “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” is prophetically playing while the camera scans the roadside houses, storefronts, and mills along the two-lane byways that weave down to New Orleans, where our heroes are ultimately heading. The depictions of the Deep South here are bleak and without redemption. In a small town café, a group of archetypally Southern local-yokels heckle and harass the three outsiders into leaving without ever being served; that evening, we get a stony but impassioned speech from George about the presence of fear in our supposed values of freedom. And then we find out that the café hecklers have waited until the darkest part of the night to sneak up and assault the men while they sleep, killing George.
But this isn’t all. After a drug-addled Mardi Gras in New Orleans with a pair of prostitutes, our biker anti-heroes are heading out of town for Lord-knows-where, when two more Brylcreem hicks happen along in a pickup truck. The skinny one with the huge disgusting tumor on his neck sticks a shotgun out the truck window and asks Billy with a toothy smile, “How’d you like me to blow your brains out?” When the answer is the middle-finger, the redneck pulls the trigger and blows the hungover hippie off his bike. The truck makes a quick U-turn while Wyatt is trying to help his friend, and the redneck issues another shotgun blast that finishes off Wyatt as he speeds away to go for help. The message: hippies, you will not leave the South alive.
Forrest Gump (1994)
This endearing portrayal of a mildly retarded man from fictional Greenbow, Alabama – you do know Greenbow is fictional, right? – begins by telling the story of how our protagonist got his name: Forrest. This “slow” little boy with a spine like a question mark was named after Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, the man generally credited with founding the Ku Klux Klan, and is living with his (husbandless) mother in the remnants of antebellum-mansion-turned-boarding-house, which indicates to us that the family’s fortunes have fallen mightily. The proud but very alone mother still holds her head high, while her woefully inadequate child navigates the post-World War II Deep South. He is tormented first by boys on bikes, then by rednecks in a pickup truck with a rebel flag on the front bumper. We also learn through childish insinuation that his true love Jenny is being molested by her drunken sharecropper father.
In Forrest Gump, Alabama is a place to escape from, then becomes home. Alabama is a place where mothers have to have sex with the principal to get their retarded children into schools and where doctors treat children with a cigarette hanging off their lip. Alabama is a place where the university football coach smiles as he calls his star player, who is running a touchdown, a stupid son-of-a-bitch. Granted, Forrest Gump discovers many kinds of hardship and cruelty during the telling of his story, but it begins (and ends) in Alabama, the place Jenny wanted desperately to leave but where she ultimately wants to die and be buried.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Even though this movie is kind of a chick flick, I like it. This film adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s novel with a slightly longer title, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, deals in mutliple nuanced portrayals of what it was like to be in the 20th century Deep South. The novel’s locale was based on a real café in Irondale, Alabama, near Birmingham.
Less of a simple frame story and more of a narrative with two dynamic plots running simultaneously, Fried Green Tomatoes take us through the story of one modern Southern woman and simultaneously through another elderly Southern woman telling her story about the old café and its cast of characters. From the old early 20th-century South, we have the tomboy (a lá Scout Finch and Mick Kelly), the damsel in distress, the faithful black employees, and plenty of wretched white men. From the newer late 20th-century South, we have the overly neurotic housewife, her fat neglectful husband, and her own group of friends. Although the lighthearted and amusing moments are present, the grotesque element that Southerners love is also featured, as in when an abusive husband is killed (in self-defense during his attack on others) and then barbecued and fed to the very law enforcement officer who is in town to solve his disappearance. Watching that suspicious agent chew his food will make your skin crawl!
Sherman’s March (1986)
In Sherman’s March, filmmaker Russ McElwee carries us through the mid-1980s South. Except it isn’t that simple. This movie is really hard to explain, it’s one of those that you have see for yourself. When we meet him, McElwee is slated to make a documentary about Sherman’s March to the Sea (during the Civil War), but right before he leaves to get started, his girlfriend breaks up with him, and the filmmaking takes a turn into . . . something else. Sherman’s March is one part tour of Southern historical sites, one part exhibition of McElwee’s nagging family drama, and one part search for a new girlfriend. The movie contains such charming awkwardness as McElwee trying to meet girls with a big camera pointed at them and him whispering to the camera under his bed sheets with a flashlight.
I have to admit that I didn’t like Sherman’s March the first time I watched it, after it was recommended to me by Andrew Beck Grace. But it’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite— the more you watch it, the more you get its odd humor and quirky charm. It’s like this film is so bad that it’s good. The filmmaker is neurotic and unfocused, his family is annoying, the cinematography can be pretty poor, and the subject isn’t really being covered . . . but that’s what makes it unforgettable.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Since the 1980s, Civil Rights films that dramatize either real events or are based on real events have trickled out of Hollywood in slow but steady pace. Mississippi Burning is among the better of them. (I myself was an extra in the 1989 film Long Walk Home, which was about the Montgomery Bus Boycott.) The movie’s scenario is based on the investigation of the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi in 1964: Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
Here, we get the often-seen odd-couple setup in the detectives played by Gene Hackman and Willem Defoe; one is the tried-and-true experienced Southern law man who knows the folkways, and the other is a young whippersnapper with new ways and techniques who wants to charge in with guns blazing. And they are dealing with the bigoted small town mayor, the Ku Klux Klan— the core of the resistance of the Civil Rights movement.
Films about the Civil Rights movement serve to personify these mid-century stereotypes of bigoted Southerners. They offer us a face to put with the ordinary, man-on-the-street racist, even though the actor playing him may not have even been born at that time. It’s one thing to know George Wallace’s or Ross Barnett’s face . . . but there were thousands and thousands of white racist “foot soldiers” – to borrow a Civil Rights movement term – that fought on the other side, too. That’s what Mississippi Burning gives us.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Most people only know two things about Gone With the Wind: “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” and “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ no baby!” I don’t really even want to discuss this movie . . . frankly. But I also don’t want to omit it, because it provides one of the most mythic portrayals of the South’s version of the Civil War. I stress the word mythic. This telling involves good and evil, right and wrong, and larger-than-life characters in life-and-death situations. The stakes are very high, and the plot is very dramatic.
The problem is that it is grossly romanticized and hyperbolically one-sided in its portrayal of the South. The cruelty of slavery is not shown. The denigration within the realities of a Southern plantation are omitted. Scarlet O’Hara is the one who suffers. Yes, we are asked to feel pity for this poor woman whose fortunes fall so far. Contrast this to the famous scene in Roots of Kunta Kentay being flogged as he refuses to accept his new name, Toby, and you will see what I mean.
What I say about Gone with the Wind is simple: take it for what it is. It isn’t realistic. People like this movie for the same reason that people like Renaissance fairs and Disney World. It’s escapism. Nothing more. And for those poor souls who insist that it’s – God bless us all – accurate, my suggestion is to leave the house more often.
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus (2003)
Unfortunately, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is one of the best examples I have seen of people trying too hard. Way too hard. I’m talking about trying way too hard. If you’ve never been to the South and want to get a sense of what it’s like down here, get a movie other than this one. The only good thing about this film is listening to Harry Crews, who can’t be anything but gritty and genuine. The rest of it – I’m just going to put it out there – is really cheesy. Jim White drives around aimlessly and rambles about what the South is . . . and it’s not interesting at all. The piling-on of stereotypical Southern-ness— it just doesn’t work.
You’re welcome to watch this film, but I wouldn’t advise it. The effort in this film to incorporate and capture the intriguing nature of Southern gothic only reaches the level of . . . the haunted house at a middle-school fall festival.
Sweet Home Alabama (2002)
I’ll begin here by saying that Sweet Home Alabama may be one of the worst movies ever made. It’s laughable in its sugary depiction of Alabama’s culture and its people. I know, I know, it’s a comedy, a chick flick, okay, I get it. It was also filmed in Georgia, which pisses me off for other reasons that I can’t quite figure out.
Sweet Home Alabama gets so much wrong. The white-mansion branch of the family still acknowledges and interacts with the trailer-park branch of the family— wrong! Their depiction of the Deep Southern white man who lives in a trailer and re-enacts Civil War battles makes him an aw shucks! loafer who knits his brow in chagrin every once in a while, but who is generally friendly and tolerant— wrong! The secretly gay best friend allowed his best girl friend to move away from their small town to the New York City fashion world without him, losing contact with her, while he stayed behind and led a closeted life as a good ’ol boy— wrong!
I realize that lots of people like this movie, and I’m sorry about that. But please don’t believe this movie accurately depicts the modern South. I think what bothers me most is: if they were going to rip off the title of the most famous Southern song there is, the least they could have done was make a good movie to go with it. I just hope Lynyrd Skynyrd was paid handsomely . . .
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Next, we’ve got the classic In the Heat of the Night. Forget that 1980s TV show with Carol O’Connor (Archie Bunker) playing Rod Steiger’s callous local lawmen. I’m talking about the Sidney Poitier movie! I’m talking about Warren Oates as the policeman-pervert who rides along and looks at the naked teenage girl who hangs out in front of her window. This is all such dark stuff: racism, statutory rape, murder, abortion, mob justice, loneliness, and an overriding lack of concern for justice.
On the night that a local businessmen is killed, it just so happens that a black man is sitting at the train station, alone, waiting for his ride home. The businessman who was killed was outsider, new to town, but who was building a new factory that was going to mean lots of jobs. The black man at the train station ends up being a Philadelphia homicide detective, who reluctantly aids in the case, riding along with the grouchy small town cops, who could never have solved this crime without him.
Here, stereotypes are reinforced about Southern police and sheriffs being a mixture of corrupt and inept, having little or no regard for equity or justice. The police just want a man in jail. The tire-salesman Southern mayor just wants the crime solved so business can move right along. The shady loser in the all-night diner just wants to eat the last slice of pie. Vergil Tibbs just wants to get the hell out of there. And as we watch, we can’t blame him.
North and South (1985)
I had to end with this one. I remembered the North and South TV mini-series from when I was a kid, but I re-watched parts of it later. What do I even say about this? I can start with: if you ever wanted to re-imagine the Civil War as a mid-1980s soap opera, here you go! What smacks of an attempt at emotional depth fails, because the characters are so cardboard. I’m a little embarrassed that I watched it by choice. (To be clear, I didn’t watch all six episodes.) I remember people eating this up with a spoon when it came out.
The basic history is all there, and they did get it right that the South seceded from the Union and a war ensued. All of this occurred during the 1860s. That part was also correct. However, I will say, to end this list: please, for the love of God, don’t take your ideas about the Civil War-era South from this movie. Please!
In conclusion, I know I’m leaving out movies that deserve to be discussed in a list on this subject. Among them, Crazy in Alabama, adapted from the Mark Childress novel, or To Kill A Mockingbird, adapted from the Harper Lee novel. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof! Any of a number of Tennessee Williams movies. Even though it’s a kids’ movie, I thought about discussing Because of Winn Dixie. If I were willing to reach geographically down to Florida, I would have added Rosewood, a very violent movie about 1923 lynching and subsequent retaliation. Or if I were willing to reach north in Tennessee, the original 1973 Walking Tall would have made a good addition. Heck, The Color Purple or Monster’s Ball. You can probably think of some, too.