Movies about the American South have existed for almost as long as cinema itself. Mychal Stanley discusses and explores these movies in our regular series Southern Comfort.
For as long as movies have been made in America, filmmakers have been obsessed with the South. And unlike the Old West, which has the distance of time to allow it to be mythologized, reconstructed, and recontextualized again and again, the American South still exists and has a history, a people, and a culture that remains to be reckoned with. And it’s really, really complicated.
Not that the movies have done a particularly good job with that reckoning. As a born and raised Southerner, I’ve been alternately angered, bemused, and amused by all the various portrayals of my beloved region of the country. It’s been used as a shorthand for backwardness, for genteel, bygone nobility, and, of course, for racial tension. Millions of Americans have formed an opinion on an entire region of the country based on the movies without even visiting (the Atlanta airport does not count).
This series will be an exploration of films that make the South a focal point. Some will do right by it, some will most certainly not, but most will probably be a mixture of the two. But mostly, I’m fascinated by how the movies view my region, and how that viewpoint may have influenced the perception of the South by people of other regions. Even if it were true that all Southerners just want to drive our pickups, shoot guns, listen to country music, and cry over the Confederate battle flag, the movies can’t even get that right all the time.
To start, the South is an immensely complex amalgamation of history, people, and culture that have combined to form something wholly unique, knotty, difficult, and beautiful. It has a cuisine that is vastly deep and varied within its borders, and so proudly protected that it’s surprising another war hasn’t been waged to decide the best way to smoke meat. It has the highest proportion of African-Americans of any region, and the ugliest history of how it treated that population. It bore the brunt of the economic and property destruction in the Civil War, and still bears the scars today. There is a pride and there is a guilt that outsiders find very hard to reconcile, but it is has been passed on through the generations in a cultural memory that has not forgotten the past, nor its lessons or mistakes (and oh, have there been many of both).
You can’t summarize the contemporary South with a paragraph, but maybe you can with a movie: David Gordon Green’s debut film George Washington, which landed with plenty of buzz on the indie circuit in 2000. Critics hailed Green as Terence Malick’s heir apparent, lauding his gorgeous, naturalistic cinematography and brilliant use of narrator. But the excellence of George Washington springs from its depiction of a small Southern town in the hands of a filmmaker from the small-town South who knows what it’s like to grow up and live there.
It’s the small details that build the foundation in this film. The way Green is able to perfectly convey a hot Southern summer, when everyone moves a little slower and no one is any particular rush to get anything done. (There’s a reason why the heat is one of the first things out-of-towners mention upon visiting the Deep South. It is omnipresent and oppressive, but it also influences the mood and actions of everyone who lives there. Southerners take it easy out of necessity; it’s hard to be in a constant rush when that results being soaked in sweat.) The kids hang out at the swimming pool every day, and when they get bored of that, explore abandoned buildings and get lost in the woods. The adults sit on the porch and try to do the least they can get away with. It’s much too hot to sit inside all day.
So the kids search for something to do and the adults sit idle. This is integral to the film’s narrative, but even if nothing in particular were to happen in the film’s plot, Green already has the attitude and atmosphere of the South down perfectly. His story takes place in the sort of depressed town that can be found sprinkled throughout the South, the number of which has only grown in the last three decades. (Full disclosure: My father’s side of the family hails from one such town, Griffin, GA, in which I have spent far too many summer days.) These towns survive because the people who couldn’t afford to leave have fought hard to stay.
Those people who couldn’t afford to leave are usually on the same side of the tracks, white or black. Here is the greatest coup in George Washington: it is the truest display of actual, everyday race relations in the small town South. The blacks and the whites have to live together to keep their towns going. And that proximity becomes a sort of comfort which is reflected amongst the kids: Sonya hangs out with Buddy and Vernon, and Rico hangs out with George. Don’t get me wrong, racism is alive and well in the South as much as in the rest of the country, but if you live in a town like Griffin, or the one in George Washington, the black families aren’t on the other side of the town, they are right next door. Life has to go on, and that doesn’t tolerate a state of constant conflict.
Faulkner, one of the greatest Southern writers, said it best: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Green realizes that the South has to know where it came from, know how it came to be, to know why it has to be better. That macro lesson is felt by the entire region, by every town, and indeed, by every person. Green knows this. In the film, Damascus is haunted by an incident in his childhood, just as George will be haunted by one in his. Abandoned buildings mingle with the ones still standing on Main Street. The railroad still keeps the town alive, as it did a hundred years ago. The South is continuously haunted, both by things it did to people and by things that were inflicted upon it. That past lives on today, not to be forgotten, nor to be praised, nor to be vilified. Outsiders are continuously surprised at how Southerners still recall the Civil War and Reconstruction as if it happened to them, but the effects of both events linger in the cultural memory of the multi-generation families that continue to live in the towns that their Civil War era ancestors lived in and fought for. It is in this lingering that the South is still coming to terms with; the way Damascus has to realize that the incident in his childhood affects his violent and irrational behavior as an adult. The way the ghost-like ruins of buildings can host great tragedies today.
To my mind, there is no film that condenses the modern-day small-town Southern experience better than George Washington. Towns like George’s are scattered throughout the South, with black and white families living together along seemingly dead-end railroad lines in the soul-crushing heat. These towns may not be much, but they’re home. There’s family in the soil and a history that permeates the air. If there is one stereotype about Southerners that I’m all right with, it’s that we’re all stubborn bastards. The South will go on and it will get better. Buddy will quote Job on an empty stage. Rico will find hope in a young superhero. George Richardson will live forever.
Mychal Stanley is a writer for Cinephile City.