A Southern Movies Bonus: The Films of 1997, 25 Years Later

Over more than a century, mainstream movies have offered portrayals of the American South that range from the darkness of 1918’s Birth of a Nation to the fluffiness of 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama. Many Americans who have never visited the South (and know little to nothing about it) take their understanding of our complicated culture not from history books by Shelby Foote or C. Vann Woodward, but from the images, characters, and story lines in movies about the South, like Gone with the Wind, Forrest Gump, The Help, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Whether they are set in the South, feature Southern characters, or both, movies feed and fuel how Americans view and treat the South, and they also perpetuate and protect common interpretations.

Though 1997 was not a banner year in Southern history, an unusually large number of films depicting the South were released that year. Some were period pieces, others focused on modern stories. Now, twenty-five years later, here’s a look back at some Southern stories that Hollywood had for us that year.

Rosewood (released February 21, 1997)

This film dramatized real events in late 1922 and early 1923, which had a white lynch mob utterly destroy a small black community in central Florida. The film is brutal and full of hate, and the nighttime setting of some of the atrocities adds to the tension. It stars Ving Rhames, who had recently been in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, and it was directed by John Singleton, who’d made 1991’s Boyz N the Hood. The late Roger Ebert gave the film a meek 3–1/2 stars but also wrote this in his review: “But if the movie were simply the story of this event, it would be no more than a sad record. What makes it more is the way it shows how racism breeds and feeds, and is taught by father to son.”

Rosewood might have been a film ahead of its time. Perhaps later this year and into early 2023, the nation will bring similar attention to Rosewood, Florida that was paid in 2021 to the destruction and violence in Tulsa at “Black Wall Street.” That level of recognition didn’t happen in 1997.

Traveller (released April 18, 1997)

GenXers probably remember Bill Paxton as the butthole older brother in Weird Science and Marky Mark as the shirtless white rapper of “Good Vibrations” fame, but this time, they’re in rural North Carolina with a band of rural con men. People who want a stereotypical Southern story won’t find it here. Where many mainstream moviegoers will want “Southern” to mean front porches, slow drawls, and racial tension, this one is more like a mob drama, saying “You’re not one of us anymore” to one who returns from faraway. Traveller features the very mobile descendants of Irish settlers who move about the hills and mountains of the Upper South and Appalachia.

The reviews from the time that appeared in North Carolina’s major newspapers came from wire services based elsewhere, but they are generally full of praise. The LA Times’ Bob Strauss wrote, “It’s an old story, in other words, cloaked in enough unusual details to seem fresher and more spontaneous than it actually is. But Traveller is no rip-off. It’s relative intelligent and interesting entertainment, which indeed sets it apart form the bunk most moviemakers are pawning off these days.”

The film’s lack of popular success could be attributed to its two stars’ other work at the time: Twister (which starred Bill Paxton) was a box office success the previous year, and the Oscar-winning Boogie Nights (which starred Mark Wahlberg) also came out the same year.

Eve’s Bayou (released November 7, 1997)

Set in Louisiana, the story intertwines the legacy of slavery, issues of social class, matters of marital infidelity, and the complexity of folk religion (hoodoo) all within bildungsroman narrative about a young girl in the 1960s. Eve, the film’s main character, is the daughter of a doctor who descends from a Creole line. She discovers that her father is likely cheating on her mother, which then leads her to learn of accusations that he also attempted to molest her sister. The film was produced by Samuel L. Jackson, who also played the doctor-father, and also stars Lynn Whitfield and Diahann Carroll.

What is interesting about Eve’s Bayou is that the story and its conflicts have virtually nothing to do with white racism. It is hard to find any movie about black life in the South, especially one made prior to the year 2000, that does not include white racism as a significant component of the story. (The Color Purple is another.)  Eve’s Bayou is about this family: a young girl’s family history, a charming husband’s infidelity, a daughter’s misunderstanding of her father’s actions, a wife’s handling of her husband’s flaws, an aunt’s role in a nuclear family, a woman’s stigma following the deaths of multiple husbands, a doctor’s elevated role in the social structure. Certainly, there are undercurrents of the white Southern racism that created circumstances and boundaries for black life, but those undercurrents don’t rise to the status of plot points.

The film wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, but it did receive significant recognition from other sources, like the NAACP’s Image Awards and the Independent Spirit Awards. At the time of its release, the film critic Roger Ebert had this to say about it:

All of these moments unfold in a film of astonishing maturity and confidence; “Eve’s Bayou,” one of the very best films of the year, is the debut of its writer and director, Kasi Lemmons. She sets her story in Southern Gothic country, in the bayous and old Louisiana traditions that Tennessee Williams might have been familiar with, but in tone and style she earns comparison with the family dramas of Ingmar Bergman. That Lemmons can make a film this good on the first try is like a rebuke to established filmmakers.

 Twenty years later, the Library of Congress put it on the National Film Registry, showing that it has stood the test of time.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (released November 21, 1997)

With a plot steeped in LGBTQ issues, this film based on the 1994 novel of the same name exposed the underbelly of Savannah, Georgia. John Cusack and Kevin Spacey star, with Jude Law playing a prominent part. In the story, which is based on real events, Spacey’s character is a wealthy and flamboyant member of the upper echelon who is murdered by his seedy gay lover. Cusack plays a writer from out of town who follows the story with some degree of interest, and in the process, befriends a black transsexual who seems to know all the details.

However, critics panned the effort. The Washington Post’s Rita Kembley had a dim view of director Clint Eastwood’s adaptation:

A stylish and scenic failure, Eastwood’s version of Midnight will surely serve the Savannah Chamber of Commerce well. But it is a surprisingly hidebound view of Southern Gothic myth from a man who thoroughly debunked the fiction of the gallant frontier in Unforgiven and managed to make a good movie out of the simplistic The Bridges of Madison County. Eastwood seems overwhelmed by the rich complexity of Berendt’s stellar book.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin had a similar response:

Had this long, earnest film arrived without a best seller in its background, it could never hope to capture the world’s imagination the way that Berendt has.

In short, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was openly regarded as one of those movies that . . . well, you should read the book instead.

The Rainmaker (November 21, 1997)

If you didn’t see (or don’t even remember) this movie, it could be because it came out the same year as Good Will Hunting. Both films star Matt Damon, but in The Rainmaker, he didn’t play a troubled math genius (or win any Oscars). This time, Damon played a fledgling lawyer in Memphis who takes on the evils of corporate America, defends a young woman from an abusive husband, and protects an old lady from her greedy son. Based on a John Grisham novel, the story isn’t his typical legal thriller but instead tells a pretty clean, everyman/good-guy story where the bad guys lose, the loose ends get tied up, and everyone lives happily ever after.

The Rainmaker was one in a series of Grisham adapations, and by the late ’90s, it was easy to say, “Oh look, another one . . .” But The New York Times gave Damon kudos for breathing some life into it: “Though the prototypical Grisham nice young man is by now a cliche, Mr. Damon is fresh and pensive here in ways that reinvent the character.” However, as a document of the South, the film falls flat, largely due to its casting: Damon, Mickey Rourke, Danny DeVito, and Claire Danes—none are exactly believable as people from Memphis.

Carolina Low (released 1995/1997)

Originally titled Paradise Falls, this Depression-era period piece won a couple of honors at smaller film festivals in 1997 and ’98. The story is a Robin Hood thing, set in North Carolina, where two lowly young guys start robbing banks when their farm will be taken away.

Though Carolina Low didn’t make much of a box-office splash, one reviewer in IMDb called it “a ‘must see’ for anyone with a love and respect for the cinema,” then continued, “The writing presents an honest depiction of mountain people, the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful and the acting superb.” Unfortunately, most others didn’t share this strong sentiment, but like Traveller, this movie depicts a South that isn’t commonly imagined.

As the late ’90s waned, a few more portrayals of the South rounded out the century. 1998 gave us The Apostle about a deeply troubled (and troubling) Southern evangelist, Oprah Winfrey’s adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Adam Sandler’s quirky and quotable football story The Waterboy. The final year of the twentieth century was slim on examples, but Macon County Jail is worth mentioning though it received little attention. That one was a remake of 1976’s Jackson County Jail, where a women is wrongfully imprisoned by small-town law enforcement. Personally, I can’t figure who thought that fin de siecle audiences would want that remake at that time.

By the 1990s, the film industry’s stereotypes of Southerners were deeply entrenched. Early in the decade, Hollywood had had hits with Southern stories, like Forrest Gump and Fried Green Tomatoes. My Cousin Vinny and Doc Hollywoodalso had audiences laughing at small-town Southerners’ lack of sophistication. But by the mid-’90s, the South’s more difficult side had prevailed in Dead Man Walking, Sling Blade, and Bastard Out of Carolina. The films of 1997 follow that trajectory by dealing more directly with neglected stories and marginalized people.

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