“The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen”
Author: Ben Beard
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $28.95 (Cloth)
A Comprehensive Look at Films Set in the South from “GWTW” to “Gump”
Readers cannot help but be astonished by the scope of this book, by the sheer number of films Beard has seen, studied and written about. He covers 100 years of filmmaking, perhaps 200 films, set in part or whole in the South.
Beard has been a film reviewer for several magazines and tells us that during a two-year period in Missouri, he checked out a film from the public library to watch every night. That, folks, is how it’s done.
Such a mass of material must of course be arranged, somehow. Not all films get or deserve equal time.
A good deal of the book is arranged by state, but Beard begins with chapters on “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind,” two powerful films that set the South in the minds of millions of Americans, for better or worse.
“The Birth of a Nation” is the first important American film—"for its technique and brio, but also for its politics and lies,” Beard tells us. The film depicts a Reconstruction of “Black corruption, Black suppression of the white voice….” “Black Union soldiers are murderous gangsters and rapists.…” Black elected officials are “drunks, clowns and dandies, right out of the minstrel tradition.” The KKK rides to the rescue.
“Gone with the Wind” covers the exact same time period and does almost as much mangling of history by presenting the Old South as a romantic, genteel land of happy slaves and some courageous Southerners struggling with the rapacious carpetbaggers.
“Gone with the Wind” has tempted Yankees to espouse the Lost Cause.
These are powerful films and have done a powerful lot of damage.
As has “Song of the South,” a movie whose caricatures fill Beard with “dread and shame.”
Zip-a dee-doo-dah, y’all.
There are chapters on Faulkner films and Erskine Caldwell films, Lillian Hellman films and many Tennessee Williams films, which Beard characterizes as full of “over-sexed women and under-sexed men,” mint juleps and martinis and “astounding familial terror.”
Readers will not agree with all Beard’s opinions: he tends left and righteous, but is mainly correct in his smoldering anger at the way African-American Southerners are presented. He can also be grumpy about white savior characters like Atticus Finch, black characters whose stories are seen through white eyes as in “The Help” and white characters redeemed through association with blacks as in “The Green Book.”
Vicious, ignorant, racist white characters get little sympathy but in truth they don’t deserve it.
Among the Dixie states, Alabama has been the subject and setting for a great many films and Beard covers them nicely.
“Mockingbird” is a “darn good film,” but dated. Atticus is a “dinosaur.” The real strength of the film, he feels, is in the depiction of the interior lives of the children.
William Bradford Huie’s “The Klansman” is a famously terrible film with Richard Burton and Lee Marvin, usually drunk on and off screen. In a world of awful Southern accents, Burton’s may be the worst. But Beard finds it “acrid, bitter’” and “instructive.” Huie’s “The Americanization of Emily,” not set in Alabama, is one of his favorite movies.
“Forrest Gump” he declares the “uberSouthern movie.”
It has everything—"Klansmen, soul music, football, everything.” Beard says it’s not a great movie, but when it comes on he watches it. It comes on a lot.
There is a trope, a subclass of Southern literature called “The Southerner in the north.”
Faulkner sends young Quentin Compson to a frozen dorm room at Harvard.
Thomas Wolfe tells us of Eugene Gant’s adjustments to Harvard and New York City.
Most famously, Willie Morris of Yazoo City, Mississippi entitles his memoir “North Toward Home.” He would later, after returning to Mississippi, recant some.
The Yankee in the South is quite another matter. This phenomenon, though rare, often sets up a conflict with the agreed-upon trope of “Southern hospitality.” You never know but what the strangers at the gate may be angels. In practice, the first greeting to the angels is often “You ain't from around here, are you?”
After the carpetbaggers of the early films, they almost disappear.
Yankees don’t, in large numbers, except for WWII, come South. Beard really likes “My Cousin Vinny” (1992). He’s right. It is one of the best fish-out-of-water movies ever made, with Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei. Two boys, named Gambini and Rothstein, are unjustly arrested for murder in rural Alabama. Pesci and Tomei come to the rescue.
There is considerable prejudice against these outsiders. Beard tells us this movie was made in “a time when regional differences were still real and puzzling” and, I guess, people still had accents.
I think that time is now, and not so much has changed. Beard himself, who was raised in Atlanta and spent a lot of time in the Panhandle and in Montgomery, tells a personal story: “Years back I drove Alabama authors Helen Blackshear and Helen Norris to a booksigning. …No matter how hard I worked to be solicitous and friendly, Norris wasn’t having it. She was chilly, even rude, in response to everything I said. But when it came up that I was born in Georgia, everything changed. She said, astonished, ‘Ben, I thought you were a Yankee!’ And she was so much friendlier after that.”
And, I presume, laid on some “Southern hospitality.”
More surprising than his fondness for “My Cousin Vinny,” Beard goes against the conventional wisdom and insists Elvis made “a number of good films and a few great ones: ‘King Creole,’ ‘Blue Hawaii’ and ‘Jailhouse Rock.’”
He covers multitudes but takes a moment to alert the reader to the wonders of “Junebug,” which “conveys the often unearthly beauty of Christianity, religion as both a source of community and hope and of a disturbing stew of psychosexual repression.”
Beard advises: “If you only watch one movie that appears in this book, I would recommend this one.” Considering the scope of Beard’s viewing and knowledge, this seems a good tip to take.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.