A spate of new movies with Southern settings has some Southrons smelling a herd of rats galloping in their direction. The reason is well-known: Southerners often come out poorly in films, which is all but unavoidable since they tend to deal with subjects such as lynching, murdering, raping, bushwhacking, slaving, ballot box stuffing, cockfighting, alligator poaching, pistol-whipping, the exploitation of the weak, helpless and retarded and the various other mainstays of life among people whose houses are backed in, not built.
Understandably, this raises hackles with many Southerners and their supporters, who think of Hollywood as Tinkletown. Marc Smirnoff, editor of the excellent "Oxford American" (that's Oxford, Mississippi) recently told "USA Today" that most movies about the South "are mean and racist." Smirnoff, whose expertise is not tainted by the fact that he hails from Marin County, California, adds that "if studios portrayed ethnic groups this way, they'd burn down the Hollywood sign."
He is not alone in his complaints. "Hollywood has turned the South into an un-American region," filmmaker Gary Hawkins added. "It's a foreign, frightening, funny place in the movies. Since the Civil War, it's been easy to demonize the South for dramatic purposes."
Robert Duvall, the great actor who has a home in Virginia, points out that producers tend to "live on either coast and don't hold the people in the middle in very high esteem. If you want to make a movie about the real South, I wouldn't hire a director north of the Mason-Dixon line. But a lot of them don't go into the region and talk to the people -- or have any basic human interaction, for that matter. So they get it wrong."
Indeed, the complaints extend to epics such as "Gone with the Wind," whose slaves are seen as too happy and compliant, or whose central white characters are denounced for their foppery and shallowness. "Deliverance," meanwhile, is deemed too rough on a vast array of sensibilities, including those of cornholing mountain men, a pair of which are exterminated with broadhead arrows by burly heteros in the James Dickey-penned classic.
As a resident of the premier Southern state, I understand these concerns. But a voice of dissent seems in order. The fact of the matter is, who cares how Southerners are portrayed in movies? For one thing, being thought of as backward, shiftless, provincial, conniving, and prone to violence can have its advantages. For instance, it keeps people like Robert Altman from moving into our hood, which is no small advantage. More to the point, being criticized by an industry known as a haven of self-absorbed, intellectually shallow greed-heads is not the most damning thing that can happen to a people or region.
The fact is, being called a skunk by these louts is a sweet honor indeed. Consider, for example, the way in which they shamelessly exploit the crudest of stereotypes, in direct contravention of civilized norms. In one new film, "Waking Up in Reno," the protagonists are two Arkansas couples who take out to attend (see if you can guess the answer):
A) A regional meeting of the Mensa Club;
B) A performance of the "German Requiem";
C) A monster truck rally.
Indeed, the only people brazen enough to suggest that crude stereotypes are not being employed are the guilty parties. "Redneck knows no geographical boundaries," explains director Jordan Brady. "These people could be from Detroit. They have cars up on blocks, too." (One might point out that in Detroit they're not fixing those cars but stripping them, though what's the use?) He added that he recently did a trailer park scene not in Alabama but in cosmopolitan Los Angeles. "Someone had built a triple-wide. Tied it together with rope and tape and abandoned it. It was perfect."
Get that man a seat on the Civil Rights Commission.
It should also be remembered that many people who look upon the South and its children with lowered expectations mean no harm. One of my favorite New York editors has asked me over the past couple months if I have Internet capability "down there" and whether I am able to watch cable television. Unfortunately, the answer to both is yes.
I'm going to keep quiet until he asks about indoor plumbing, which of course we all have in some form or another, especially if you count open windows.
Despite these misperceptions, all Americans worth their citizenship know the South has contributed a great deal to American culture. We've produced great soldiers and writers, preachers and artists, and also are the home to the blues, rock 'n' roll and jazz. Our wonderful cuisine has put smiles on countless faces, including many a cardiologist's. We've produced some of the nation's predominant politicians -- saints and scoundrels alike. Our transformational powers are so great that we were able to take a homely Chicago-area native, Hillary Rodham, and after only a few seasons in Little Rock convert her into our nation's First Lady.
In fact, we also converted one of the nation's most despised actresses into a woman of increasingly worthy character. That would of course be Jane Fonda, who was brought to the South by Ted Turner, then became a Baptist and slipped his grip. Both stories would make great films, especially if Hill and Jane are cast as older and wiser gals looking back (and down) on their former selves. A good title for either might be "Been Her."
Dave Shiflett, TAP's Virginian columnist, is a writer in Midlothian, Virginia.
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