“Film adaptations of Southern novels” was the little corner of scholarship I staked out as my personal territory while obtaining an MA in English Literature a few years ago (here’s my thesis). One of the many benefits that came from that time of intense reading, writing, and research (some of which involved watching movies, which was fantastic) was an appreciation for the “Southern” as a distinct genre of film.
The Southern is not discussed as frequently or appreciated as widely as its more popular regional cousin, the Western. Nevertheless, it is a rich and complex genre where labels like “good” and “evil” have nothing to do with the color of a character’s hat. Tragically, and to our society’s great shame, those labels don’t always run deeper than the color of their skin. But it is precisely this troubled and troubling approach to race, to religion, to politics, to gender, in short, to every contested corner of the American experience, that makes the genre so worthy of attention.
In ideological terms, the Western and the Southern have frequently highlighted opposing views of American identity. It is the cowboy, not the damnyankee, that is the movie Southerner’s true opposite. The hallmarks of the Western are life on the frontier, society in its infancy, and characters who navigate a constantly shrinking space between wilderness and civilization. The cinematic West is a land of adventure, opportunity, and progress. Its spirit is the relentless drive to tame the frontier through ingenuity, entrepreneurial skill, and sheer hard work. Lawlessness abounds in the West, but so do virtuous men of action, ready to step up and defend the weak and innocent before riding off into the sunset, towards the horizon and the future. Temporally, the Western is all future. In fact, Western films are awash in ex-Confederate characters about whose past lives as Southerners we know little or nothing.
In the South, by contrast, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” (Yes, that’s Faulkner.) There is no future in the Southern, everything is past and the past is everything. The role of the past is haunting, nostalgic, or both at once. The cinematic South is a land of ignorance, superstition, and, above all, racial prejudice. Its spirit is crushed by the weight of an inescapable history and unbreakable cycles of tragedy and violence. The hallmark of the Southern is lost innocence, which is probably why so many Southerns are coming-of-age stories. Where the West is lawless but virtuous, Southern law is rotten to the core, corrupted in its very nature by vice and inequality. Where the West is wide open and new, the South is claustrophobic: Gothic, suffocating in Spanish moss, full of sweltering swamps and creepy old plantation houses and dark, buried secrets. The South is a graveyard inhabited by the living, haunted by ways of life the rest of the nation has collectively attempted to reject for over 150 years.
Consequently, as a genre, the Southern has allowed us to observe the progress (or lack of progress) of this rejection. In addition, Southerns have questioned whether that way of life should have been rejected, reinforced the righteousness of its rejection, mourned the way of life that was lost, mocked it, and so on and on. The Southern does not depict life on the margins of society (like the Western) so much as life in a marginalized society, still overshadowed by a social order that is dead or dying.
The Western genre, in its heyday, basically existed to provide us with the shining example of what it means to be American. The Southern genre, at its heart, is a cautionary tale, an object lesson demonstrating what Americans shouldn’t and mustn’t be. This is certainly true of the many Southerns that communicate that idea deliberately, but even the many Southerns that set out to do just the opposite have ended up accomplishing the same purpose in the minds of the audience thanks to an ideology that is profoundly out of step with “modern American values.”
In the 1950s, historian C. Vann Woodward called the South’s experience of defeat in the midst of America’s story of unbroken victory and success the “central irony of Southern history.” A decade or so later, Vietnam, the turmoil over civil rights, the threat of nuclear annihilation, and the rise of the counter-culture raised doubts and questions that Southerners had already struggled with for a century. One cultural product of those times was the emergence of a more nuanced “revisionist” Western sub-genre in which the white hat/black hat, cowboy/indian duality of previous Westerns could no longer be taken for granted. Revisionist Westerns have also been called “anti-Westerns,” but it is the Southern that has always been the true anti-Western.
In American culture (including in literature and elsewhere, but especially in film), the fictional South has performed the service of housing our nation’s heart of darkness. It is the societal scapegoat, and the repudiation of it permits the rest of the country to maintain the illusion of purity, progress, and virtue. This allows us to feel good about ourselves and our identity as Americans, and that arrangement works out pretty well for everyone … except Southerners, of course. The most obvious choices they seem to have are to either reject their Southern identity, contenting themselves to be mere “Americans,” or to defiantly embrace it. One needn’t look far to observe both of these choices in action.
It is important to understand, though, particularly out of fairness to those people who raise reasonable objections to the largely one-sided treatment the region receives on-screen, that the South of the movies is not the South. Well, of course it isn’t. The South of the movies does exist, in a sense, but one of the more unfortunate lies that the Southern genre has perpetuated (largely unwittingly and unintentionally, it should be stressed) is that it is the only South, when it is actually one of many.
The South is a vast region of some 115 million people, whose culture has, in one place and time or another, been influenced by English, Scotch-Irish, French, and Spanish colonization, as well as a significant Native American presence, an infusion of African slaves, and immigrant populations from everywhere else. The South’s best-kept secret (perhaps even from itself) is that, far from a homogeneous land of white Christian patriarchs, the region is one of the most diverse in the nation. Of the eleven states that seceded from the Union 150 years ago, three (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Georgia) are among the top ten in population diversity nationwide, and another six (Texas, Alabama, Florida, Virginia, and North and South Carolina) are in the top twenty.
All of this ought to be somewhat obvious, but it’s not. As Flannery O’Connor complained, “I am always having it pointed out to me that life in Georgia is not at all the way I picture it, that escaped criminals do not roam the roads exterminating families, nor Bible salesmen prowl about looking for girls with wooden legs.” There is certainly more going on here than a straightforward attempt to depict (or even to demonize) the South.
Once it is clear, then, that the South of the Southern is, like the West of the Western, merely another setting for American mythology (that is, of “ideology in narrative form”), it no longer makes much sense to be outraged on behalf of the geographic Southern states. There are still good myths and bad myths, well-made films and poorly-made ones, to be sure. However, the questions that are worth asking start to sound less like, “Does this adequately represent a physical location and its people?” and more like, “How does this regional drama/comedy/horror/whatever fit into the larger tapestry of American cultural identity?”
When I was younger, I took a certain regional pride in the obvious quality of good Southern literature (which I recognized as something distinctive long before I took notice of its cinematic counterpart), and I reveled in the richness of Southern characters and in Southern writers’ obviously intense connection to their homeland. My approach to these works was characterized by a childlike wonder and by the sheer pleasure of a good book, and this enjoyment, and my youthful innocence, overshadowed the dark side of the Southern experience so completely that the South became an idealized fantasy to me.
Not surprisingly, it was a Southern film that finally broke that spell. 10 years ago, while I was in college, I saw D.W. Griffith’s profoundly racist epic The Birth of a Nation for the first time, and my youthful illusions withered away before my very eyes. I still have the brief reflection I wrote when I returned to my dorm that night, and it is startling now to observe my naive idealizations crumble as I process my thoughts in a few short paragraphs, assimilating this new perspective. And yet, far from either doubling-down or turning away in disgust, my fascination was assured for all time.
Naturally, Flannery O’Connor is the best person to explain why that is: “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. [...] I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now.” (From “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction” (1960). Do yourself a favor and read it all sometime.) Half a century on, the Southern is still able to recognize a freak, and still able to take them seriously, and that’s important, because there is a little bit of the freak in all of us.
What is a Southern, though? How are we to define this genre that I’ve been discussing? First, very few genres are as strictly limited by location as the Southern is. Even Westerns, despite their connection with the American West, have frequently re-located to other countries, and even other planets. A Southern absolutely must use as a setting some place within one of the 11-14 states (depending on who’s counting) of the American South. Fulfilling this condition, however, does not automatically make a film an example of the Southern genre, largely due to what filmmakers intend to convey when they set a story in a particular location.
The “Deep South” is used much as you might expect. Films that deal with racism are set in Mississippi. Southerns with more nostalgic feelings for the South take place in Alabama. Louisiana is sultry and sweaty and swampy and Gothic. Films about the Confederacy frequently involve Georgia. Tennessee is home to hicks and Arkansas to hillbillies, some singers and some psychopaths (and at least one who is both).
But as we move out, towards the edges of the South, things aren’t so straightforward. A film that is set in Virginia may be about the Civil War, but it may as easily involve the CIA or the colony at Jamestown. Far more Westerns than Southerns are set in Texas. A film in Florida might be a good Southern noir, or it might be about dolphins, like 1963′s Flipper, or about Cuban drug lords, like 1983′s Scarface. So, second, Southerns must be set in the South, but not all movies set in the South are Southerns.
Beyond those two very basic criteria, things become complicated enough that a really worthwhile discussion would range further than I am willing to here. For a more solid, scholarly discussion of the Southern genre, see Lucinda MacKethan’s excellent “Genres of Southern Literature” from “Southern Spaces” (2004), which is very accessible, and probably the best short-form attempt to delineate and qualify the boundaries of treating Southern literature as a discrete genre that you could hope to find.
Her categorization of the many sub-genres that lurk beneath the Southern umbrella, while obviously geared towards literature, is also a good primer for our discussion of individual Southerns. The sub-genres of Southern films are equal parts literature and Hollywood: There are Civil War films, serious literary adaptations, coming-of-age stories, Southern Gothic/horror, rural comedies, family dramas, musicals, and many more, all overlapping and intertwining at various points.
However, rather than mount a lengthy analysis and discussion of that list, I’ll just get on with my own list of the films that I would call “Essential Southerns.” Look for it right here in the coming weeks . . .