“Maybe Dixie’s Not the Right Song”: The South as Colonial Subject in Civil Rights Movies


In a 1941 essay, Carson McCullers suggests that “The South has always been a section apart from the rest of the United States, having interests and a personality distinctly its own. Economically and in other ways it has been used as a sort of colony to the rest of the nation.” Although her choice of words here is interesting, the idea itself is not totally unique among scholars and observers of the South.

disassociationIn 1968, historian C. Vann Woodward famously expressed the central irony of southern history as its experience of military defeat and occupation amidst the American legend of victory and unbroken success, an experience that has cut the South off culturally from the rest of the country. Even more recently, in her 1997 book Gothic America, Teresa Goddu states that “the American South serves as the nation’s ‘other,’ becoming the repository for everything from which the nation wants to disassociate itself.”

What these descriptions, and many others like them, imply is a perception of the South as a region that is unlike the rest of the nation in ways that somehow reach deeper than mere differences in geography and culture. They point us towards a prominently-held vision of the South as a source of vices and traditions which contradict the image of a nation shaped by ideals of democracy and liberal humanism.

The decades-old trope of a South that is backwards and benighted has left the region culturally vulnerable to a sort of colonization by more enlightened Americans from northern (or western) states. This movement ostensibly seeks to bring the South, as a repository of undesirable elements, into step with the rest of the nation by encouraging white southerners to reject and deplore those distinctive aspects of their culture and heritage (i.e. those which evoke images of slavery or racial segregation) that contradict the values they share with their white northern brethren.

integrationIronically, but not surprisingly, the manifestations of such efforts are often implicitly complicit in the very same privileging of white over black that they appear to abhor, in addition to being guilty of many of the faulty attitudes frequently identified in Western colonial literature. The culturally-embedded existence of this phenomenon can best be illustrated via examples from the medium of Hollywood film, where widely-held notions of historical truth and national identity, correct or not, so often enter the popular imagination. Specifically, I propose to examine the 1988 film Mississippi Burning and the 1996 docudrama Ghosts of Mississippi. These are films which claim to retell actual events from the “beginning” and “end” of the Civil Rights story, and whose releases bookend a brief period of heightened cinematic interest in such stories.

Before proceeding with this analysis, however, it is worth stressing that the basis of my reading, including any criticism of these filmic portrayals of the Civil Rights Movement, is not intended as a critique of the actual Civil Rights Movement, or of the moral imperative which I believe lies behind the cultural and political forces that seek to oppose racism in all its forms. Nor is it my intention to paint white southerners as sympathetic victims of northern cultural “aggression,” or to pass a value judgment on any given aspect of southern culture (which is certainly not an endangered species by any reckoning) as worthy of either approbation or reprobation.

Rather, I am seeking to draw attention to ways in which the principles of postcolonial criticism can be adapted to shed an interesting and profitable light on a group of texts which have perhaps not been examined in this context before. My approach is based on the idea that postcolonial criticism ought to (at least in theory) be applicable to any group of texts which appears to assert the superiority of one culture and its values over another.

mississippiburningposterMississippi Burning is loosely based on an FBI investigation into the murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964. The protagonists are Ward (Willem Dafoe) and Anderson (Gene Hackman), two white FBI agents with wildly different perspectives and approaches. Ward, the younger agent, is officially in charge and has come to the FBI from the Kennedy Justice Department. During his time there, he was wounded while protecting James Meredith, the first African American student to enroll in the University of Mississippi. Ward is strait-laced and idealistic. He believes in rigorously following FBI rules and procedures, but he is also ideologically committed to bringing about racial equality in the South.

Anderson, who seems to be at least a few decades older, was once the sheriff of a small Mississippi town, not unlike the one where the agents take up residence. He is rough and blunt, and his sense of humor is crude. He knows the region, and he speaks the heavily-accented, “good-old-boy” language of the white locals. His function is to serve as guide to both Ward and the audience as the film enters this strange land.

The Anderson character is something of an analog to Homi K. Bhabha’s “mimic man,” uncomfortably occupying the space between the culture of righteous, enlightened American justice embodied by the FBI and the culture of a virulently-racist and white-supremacist South. He is the embodiment of the genre’s hero: what Allison Graham calls “the man of law, the redeemed southern white man.”

His role in the film leaves him in a somewhat ambiguous position during much of the story. He simultaneously cautions Ward against any action which might stir up trouble in the area (i.e. “Don’t do it, Mr. Ward. You’ll just start a war.”), and engages in dialogue with the locals that is calculated to provoke a reaction. His sympathy with, or at least understanding of, the town’s residents is clear in various conversations with Ward, but he rarely shows the same level of respect in his encounters with suspicious rednecks.

In the agents’ first encounter with a town official, the sneering deputy, Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), Anderson immediately senses that they are being stonewalled after they request to see the sheriff. While Ward politely takes a seat to wait, Anderson saunters over, sits down on the deputy’s desk, and says, “Listen to me, you backwoods shit-ass, you. You’ve got about two seconds to get the sheriff out here, or I’m gonna kick the goddamn door in.” He smiles broadly as he finishes speaking, but before the deputy has a chance to respond, the sheriff emerges from his office. It is unclear whether this ostentatious display has had any effect on the deputy, but it has served its intended purpose: to signal to Ward and to the audience that Anderson “knows how to talk to these people.”

Moments later, though, as the agents sit in their car, Anderson contradicts Ward’s privileging of the account given by the civil rights office over the story from the sheriff: “Lying just don’t come into it […] If a sheriff in a little town like this says that’s what happened, then that’s what happened.” Then, in the very next scene, Anderson tells Ward not to “even think about” taking a seat in the “colored” section of a full diner (although Ward ignores the warning). However, Anderson repeatedly goads various people he encounters with the joke that he likes baseball “because it’s the only time that a black man gets to wave a stick at a white man without starting a riot.”

Meanwhile, Anderson’s ambiguous feelings towards those around him are mirrored back at him by the other characters, and he is regarded with suspicion by Ward as well as the townspeople. Attempting to explain racial prejudice to the other agent, Anderson tells a story about how his father once poisoned a black man’s mule because it made the other man more prosperous than he was. By way of explanation, he tells his son, “If you ain’t any better than a nigger, son, who are you better than?”

wardandersonWhen Ward asks indignantly if he thinks that’s an excuse, Anderson quickly replies, “No, it’s not an excuse. It’s just a story about my daddy.” Ward remains unconvinced, and the conversation is interrupted by the breaking of their window signaling the arrival of a burning cross outside the hotel. Later on, after the two men discover a young black man who has been castrated by the Ku Klux Klan, Ward turns to Anderson again for answers, “What’s wrong with these people?” This time, however, Anderson is silent, merely shaking his head.

Anderson’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the townspeople are even more frustrating. He always enters their gatherings with a friendly smile, but everyone in the room quickly stops talking and he is left to deal with an awkward silence. When he happens on an informal meeting of a men’s “social club” at one point, his arrival forestalls the punch line of a racist joke, but he convinces the reluctant deputy to supply him with a beer.

Forced to make conversation himself amidst the sudden lull, he launches into a humorous story about his experiences dealing with bootleggers as a southern sheriff. No one in the room is amused, and Deputy Pell quickly pipes up, “We ain’t too interested in your good ol’ Mississippi boy stories, Anderson. You ain’t from here no more.” By this point in the film, Anderson couldn’t agree more. When asked why he left, he replies “The grits started to leave a bad taste in my mouth.”

This seemingly offhand remark cuts straight to the heart of Anderson’s character. He has invoked a stereotypical staple of the traditional southern diet as a metaphor for his discomfort with southern mores and traditions as a whole. However, rejecting these values has cut him off from his people, his heritage, and perhaps even his identity. Although he has replaced these unacceptable southern values with acceptable American ones, he still speaks with the accent and idioms of a southerner. To his fellow agents, he is a man from the South, but the people of the South recognize the lack of connection between the style and the substance of his speech, and see him as an outsider.

Anderson’s ambiguity with regards to the South stands out in sharp relief against the attitudes and actions of the film’s other characters. As Ward tells Anderson, “We’re not killers. That’s the difference between them and us.” Anderson’s reply reflects his atypical nature: “That’s the difference between them and you.” This is a world of “us” and “them,” sharply-defined camps which cannot overlap.

mrspellThe attitude is shared by the Mississippi natives. The mayor attempts to set Anderson straight about the region: “People got the wrong idea about the South […] Simple fact is we’ve got two cultures down here: white culture and the colored culture. That’s the way it always has been and that’s the way it always will be.” When Anderson responds that “The rest of America don’t see it that way,” Sheriff Stuckey is quick to interject, “Rest of America don’t mean jack-shit. You in Mississippi now.” The film presents a monolithic Mississippi (and, by extension, a monolithic South) which poses a problem to the nation that must be dealt with by members of the outside government.

This element of necessary intervention is the source of most of the flaws which undermine the film’s social message of racism confronted and defeated. Specifically, the local black population is portrayed as completely passive in the face of extreme persecution (their response is not only ineffectual, it is practically nonexistent), and, in fact, the filmmakers fail utterly to integrate them into the story in any meaningful way. All of the scenes which feature African Americans, most of which show them either suffering from or reacting to random acts of violence, feel like digressions from the plot.

The only action taken by blacks in the film is after a judge has suspended the sentence of some of the suspected murderers. In response, the black population riots and destroys their own section of town (while the local police watch). The FBI agents largely fail to show any sort of significant concern about (or even knowledge of) the events that are transpiring in the margins of this film, although dozens of buildings are burned to the ground, blacks are terrorized and beaten, and one man is lynched as his family hides nearby.

Ultimately Anderson and Ward are galvanized into taking action, and finally learn to work together to defeat the KKK network, bringing everyone involved to justice swiftly and decisively. However, the event which enrages and inspires them to act is not the lynching which has just transpired, but rather the brutal beating of a local white woman (Frances McDormand) with whom Anderson has become romantically involved.

throwbackBy making the endangerment of a southern white woman the impetus which drives the film’s resolution, the filmmakers have resurrected the sort of conventional southern trope that is typical of, for instance, D.W. Griffith’s racist pseudo-historical epic The Birth of a Nation (1915). While this raises the dramatic stakes, it does little to promote the enlightened racial attitudes that the film is trying to foster. The film’s director, Alan Parker, seemed to at least partially understand this by the time he did the DVD commentary for Mississippi Burning. As the final credits roll, he says:

Is it the definitive Civil Rights story? No. Is it a story told from a black point of view? No. Did this film get made because the two heroes in it are still white? Possibly, but that’s a reflection of American society as much as it is to do with the film industry […] if it opened up a debate to discuss racism in America, and if they used the inadequacy of my film in order to point that out, I’m still proud.

Parker’s desire to shape historical events on film in order to inspire audiences to examine their own attitudes about race reveals Mississippi Burning to be “a fable for, by, and about white characters.”

ghostsofmississippiposterGhosts of Mississippi (1996), which is based on the 1994 retrial and conviction of Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, managed to avoid most of these pitfalls by adhering slavishly to the historicity of its narrative. Certainly the black community features much more prominently in this story, particularly Evers’ loyal wife Myrlie (Whoopie Goldberg), who continues to seek justice for the murder for over a quarter century before finally finding someone who is willing to prosecute Beckwith (James Woods) again. The film begins with an extended flashback, showing the murder and subsequent mistrials in the 1960s.

During that first trial, as Myrlie sits in the witness stand, she watches in shock as the governor of Mississippi slips into the courtroom and make his way over to shake the murderer’s hand. A reporter covering the trial protests to a colleague, “There isn’t a court in America that would stand for that!” “What’s America got do with anything?” the other replies. “This is Mississippi.” The exchange echoes Sheriff Stuckey’s remark from the other film: “You in Mississippi now.” Again there is a strong sense that this part of the country is not actually a part of the country at all.

delaughterAlthough it begins in 1963 and seems poised to place Myrlie center-stage in the story, the action soon moves to 1989 and we are introduce to the real central character, and hero, of the movie: Bobby DeLaughter (Alec Baldwin), a white southern lawyer serving as Deputy District Attorney in Jackson, Mississippi (again, a redeemed southern man of law). A principled but somewhat complacent father of three, DeLaughter comes to identify strongly with Evers, who was gunned down in front of his wife and three children.

Like Agent Anderson, DeLaughter soon finds himself awkwardly dangling between two cultures as he reluctantly begins to look into reopening the Beckwith case. He is inspired by the courage and determination of Mrs. Evers, and convicted by his own conscience as a well-educated American man of the 1990s, both of which make him inclined to pursue the case. On the other hand, he faces the opposition of, not only a large and very vocal (and violent) segment of the Mississippi population, but of his own family in the form of his wife and mother.

In fact, as he insistently pursues the case into the evidence-gathering stage, his wife leaves him and the children, ashamed and unable to face the disapproval of her own friends and family. On her way out the door, she asks her husband what happened to them. “People change,” he tells her. “Are you saying I’ve changed?” she protests. “I’m saying you haven’t.” DeLaughter is well aware that the Evers case has changed him. He can hardly help but be aware of it. The further he proceeds, the more difficult circumstances become. His car is vandalized, his children get into fights, and he is forced to move them into a hotel when they receive a bomb threat at home late one night. Meanwhile, he also faces suspicion and distrust from the local black community, who don’t quite believe that a white government official in Mississippi is really working in their interest. The excruciatingly slow process lasts for years, finally coming to trial in 1994.

courtroomIn that time, a great deal has changed for DeLaughter, including his attitude towards his own culture and heritage (oddly, however, his children don’t seem to age). Early in the film, we see him play out a ritual with his young daughter when she comes into his room to complain that “the ghost is back.” DeLaughter humors her, carrying her back to bed and pretending to be able to see the ghost as well. He tells her that his mother told him as a child that ghosts can be made to leave if they hear their favorite song, and that all ghosts are known to love “Dixie.” Together they sing the song and banish the ghost. Later on, after his wife has left him, DeLaughter is sitting alone in bed when his phone rings. On the other end of the line is Beckwith, who has called to deliver an ominous but vague threat against the life of the new star witness.

DeLaughter has just finished the conversation when his daughter comes in to inform him that the ghost has returned to her room once more. He scoops her back into bed, and she asks him to sing “Dixie” for her again. Haunted by the specter of Beckwith and all that he represents, DeLaughter finds himself unable and unwilling to sing the song. Finally, he tells the little girl, “Maybe Dixie’s not the right song after all,” and together they settle on the more innocuous “Old MacDonald.” The unpleasant associations of the song have overwhelmed his desire to sing it, and you can see in his expression that he is thinking of the legacy he is passing on to his daughter, as well. He must reject the southern anthem and even the small tricks of parenting which his racist mother has passed on to him in order to steer away from the darker connotations of the culture.

victoryWith these cultural demons defeated, the only thing that remains is to go through the dramatic motions of the trial scene. After the jury returns its guilty verdict, DeLaughter and his family join Myrlie Evers and her family on the courthouse steps to celebrate before a jubilant crowd. It is a portrait of community restored that is denied to the heroes of Mississippi Burning, which ends with a small cluster of people gathered around an open grave, singing a mournful hymn. But then, as a document of the immediate past, Ghosts of Mississippi can afford to pretend that the evils of racism (as embodied by Beckwith) have been somehow defeated, or at least banished for a while. The Mississippi of 1964, on the other hand, still has a long way to go.

Interestingly, Ghosts of Mississippi shares another unlikely historical link to its 1988 predecessor, at least according to Fred Zollo, who produced both films. Mississippi Burning, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards (including best picture and acting nominations for Hackman and McDormand), sparked considerable interest in true stories from the dark corners of Civil Rights history. As Zollo tells it, the real-life DeLaughter reopened the Beckwith case partially as a result of a series of investigative articles written by local reporter Jerry Mitchell, who in turn claimed to have been inspired by the film.

Additionally, shortly after the release of Mississippi Burning, former Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey sued Zollo for the unfavorable portrayal of his fictional alter-ego in the film. While researching Zollo’s defense, lawyer John Ables discovered Klandestine, a book about a KKK member who became an informant to the FBI. Years later, Klandestine provided a crucial break in the Beckwith case when it led DeLaughter to use the informant as a witness. So, by this somewhat tenuous and convoluted route, Mississippi Burning, inspired by a racially-motivated murder in the South in 1964, inspired the long-overdue resolution of a racially-motivated murder in the South in 1963, which in its turn inspired the film Ghosts of Mississippi. It is a perfect example of “the tangled contemporary relationship between history and historical reenactment.”

burningmississippichurchesHowever, Zollo’s account neglects a final chapter to the story which Parker alludes to more than once in his commentary on Mississippi Burning: That the obsessive telling and retelling of a story can breathe new life into spirits long since laid to rest. It is somewhat disturbing to watch the scene of a church being consumed by flames during the opening credits of Mississippi Burning and hear Parker casually observe that this is “one of the many churches that we burned.” That is, in order to recreate the image, the film crew actually located and burned down three existing church structures. Even Parker, after a moment’s reflection, is forced to acknowledge that “it felt pretty weird doing it.” He recalls further discomfort during the scenes depicting Klan violence, particularly the lynching scene.

The phenomenon is hardly limited to the earlier movie, though. The most disturbing of these resurrections of the past is undoubtedly James Woods’ incredible, repulsive immortalization of Byron De La Beckwith for Ghosts of Mississippi. The film was nominated for two Oscars, one for Woods performance (he disappears completely into his role) and another for the flawless makeup that aged the younger actor a quarter century to play the geriatric bigot. Acclaimed Mississippi novelist Willie Morris worked as a consultant on the film, and later wrote a book about the production.

delabeckwithIn it, he describes his own occasional ambivalence at the often all-too-literal evocations of Mississippi ghosts: “this uncanny blending of the ‘real’ and the re-created ‘unreal,’ between the authentic fact and the filmed fact, between the shadow and the act, would make it exceedingly difficult for me to distinguish the two: layer upon layer of ironies, of painful and public personal memories, surreal to me in their unfolding.” As a native of the state, Morris is frequently uncomfortable with the implications of the film crew’s attention to detail in bringing this story back to life.

More important than any other consideration, perhaps, is the question of what impression all of this might have made on a region still working to heal the scars of a past that is not as distant as many would like to pretend. Alan Parker vividly recalls the displeasure of the townspeople of Lafayette, Alabama (where he filmed his small-town exteriors) when the crew set up burning crosses for various scenes involving Klan intimidation. After forcing integration on the South during the 1960s, outsiders returned to the region throughout the 1990s to erect the symbols of racial segregation and intolerance once more. Culturally, then, the South is still being used as a colony to the rest of the nation, possibly to the detriment of both.

~ by Jared on May 14, 2009.

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