From “The Birth of a Nation” to “Forrest Gump,” “Gone with the Wind” to “Green Book,” Hollywood has a long, complex and sometimes troubled relationship with depictions of the Deep South. Writer and historian Ben Beard, a Georgia native who now lives in Chicago, examines that legacy in his new book “The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen.” Beard will appear in a free, virtual author talk hosted by the Atlanta History Center on June 3 at 7 p.m. See the History Center’s website for details.
Beard answered some questions about what Hollywood gets right and wrong about the South.
Can you name a movie about the South that you think gets it right, and why?
I think a lot of films catch or capture aspects of the South, but the South isn’t a monolithic thing. “Magic Mike” keys into the beachy, druggy, hang-out Florida of late nights, diners, day-drinking, and sketchy people. It’s a great movie. (The sequel is wretched.) “Junebug” handles evangelical religion on its own terms, revealing generous, friendly people who are also standoffish and judgmental. It’s a great movie, too. “Moonlight” is a wonderful film, taking viewers through the poor and Black areas of Miami. “God’s Little Acre” digs into the belligerent lunacy of a certain Southern type, the deluded country dreamer. “Conrack” follows a teacher working with Black students off the coast of the Carolinas. None of these movies have anything in common with each other. The South is a vast expanse of land and people.
Name one that is egregiously short-sighted or just plain wrong.
A lot of Southern movies get things wrong. One, they often use Southern accents as a shorthand for racism. Two, they often use the South as a scapegoat for America’s racial sins. Three, they group the South together as one thing, which it isn’t. Four, back in the day they often left out Black characters. Five, nowadays they often reveal a binary place, of just Black and white people. Six, they often portray the South as more violent than the rest of the country, which is a complete and utter joke. (Except, maybe not: Louisiana is the most violent state in the Union, per capita.) As an aside, New Orleans is too complex and rich a locale for most films. I can’t think of a great New Orleans film — not really. As to individual films that misfire or misrepresent: “Tobacco Road,” “The Alamo,” “White Lightning,” “Mississippi Burning,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Triple-9.” The list is long, really. A lot of the old films, pre-1950s, celebrate the Old South as a prelapsarian Eden, which is nonsense.
You write about Hollywood’s “distorting lens.” Can you elaborate?
I think American cinema is so good, we take for granted technical expertise and a wide array of film genres. I love old musicals, Westerns and film noir. I think Hollywood has a great track record with dramas, melodramas and romantic comedies, and a pretty good output of war movies, heist films and gangster pictures. But Hollywood is historically pretty bad at local color, local customs. Hollywood struggles with smaller, more personal films. And Hollywood — like New York — is in love with itself and its own importance. The South is a complex reality and a complex idea. Hollywood isn’t good at dealing with either. So Southerners are often seen as dumb, ignorant reactionaries or sages dispensing folksy wisdom. I don’t look to Hollywood for nuance, but still, the overall picture of the South is pretty dismal, movie-wise.
Your book is part memoir. What’s your connection to the film industry?
My great-great-uncle Owen Davis wrote the screenplay for “Jezebel,” but I never met him. In the early 2000s, I reviewed films for two different now defunct magazines, and interviewed directors and stars. I wanted to write movies as well as about them, maybe make brief appearances as disposable henchmen in B-movies, get gunned down, kicked off of highrises, blown up in spacecraft, yell things like “You rebel scum!” and “I got him!” Didn’t happen. I have the madness and pathology for writing books, but lack the same insane drive to make films. So my connection to the industry is that of a fan, student, and long-time observer. With this book, I was trying to capture different facets of the movie industry through its relationship to the South, which is another way of saying, I wanted to explore the distinct problems of America — racial, economic, historical, narrative, mythic — through the movies. I wanted to write a killer book full of anecdotes, asides, opinion.
I have an ambiguous relationship to the South. I lived my first 25 years entirely in the Deep South. I didn’t hunt. I hated fishing. I disliked camping. I despised boats. I never quite fit in with any camp, and when I began listening to punk music, I vacillated between aggressive asceticism and hedonistic flights of inebriated derangement. But that’s Pensacola for you.
The point: I didn’t really belong to the South that I was living in. I loved books and superheroes and movies. I played soccer — at the time still considered a “socialist European sport.” My South was beachy, suburban, a 1980s-Satanic-Panic-gripped America that had more in common with “Back to the Future” than “Gone with the Wind.”
I kind of hated it down there. The heat. The people. But once I moved away, first to Spain then to Iowa and on to Chicago, I realized that people really were genuinely friendly and helpful, that I loved huge chunks of my birth region, and that the South had given our culture a lot.
Finally, I’m not coming to the South with a defensive posture. Slavery was one of America’s worst sins, and we haven’t atoned for it yet. Ditto for Jim Crow segregation. I’m just not ready to condemn the South for all of America’s sins. But we’re seeing a new phase of Black art dealing with this very thing. The very fine “Them” follows a Black family moving to Los Angeles in the 1950s, and finding a violent clan of racist suburbanites wishing them harm. “Lovecraft Country” details a similar story, only in Chicago and the Midwest.