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Southern Movie Primer

10 films that dive into the beauty and terror of Southern life.
By Jake Cole

“Gone With the Wind” may be the film that dominates the conversation when it comes to the South, but it’s hardly the only great movie about the region. The South may not grace the screen regularly enough, or at least not as something more than a cultural punching bag, but there are movies that capture both its reality and cultural spirit. From a silent masterpiece to modern works of poetry and progressiveness, these 10 films should be on every Southerners’ to-watch list.

The General (Buster Keaton, 1926)

The Civil War was at the heart of American cinematic innovation in the medium’s first few decades, from D.W. Griffith’s medium-changing “The Birth of a Nation” to a little film about a woman named Scarlett. The conflict even made for seminal comedy, as seen in this movie Orson Welles called “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made.” Keaton’s rebel engineer moves through a world as realistic as the still photographs to come from the conflict — and as absurd as anything the great clown could come up with. Epic in scope, minute in timing, “The General” is one of the last great works of the silent age.

The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson, 1955)

Organized crime: it’s not just for Chicago anymore! Filmed on location in Alabama and ripped from the headlines, “The Phenix City Story” is one of a more savage breed of noirs that came out just before the end of the genre’s golden age. Bosley Crowther rightly compared it to the political and moral quagmires of “All the King’s Men” and “On the Waterfront.” It’s a story of people coming together to do the right thing in the face of adversity, and conditions don’t get much more adverse than in Phenix City, with its police brutality, voter intimidation and even child killings. But for all its pitch-black noir and unflatteringly realistic portrayal of Deep South social tensions, “The Phenix City Story” ultimately emerges optimistic about its slow but noble struggle against vice and evil. Of all the films on this list, this may be the most accurate depiction of the Deep South, despite its focus on aberrant mass corruption.

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Laughton’s Southern Gothic thriller about children evading a housewife-murdering madmen in preacher’s clothes at times bypasses Flannery O’Connor to head all the way back to German expressionism. A shot of a drowned woman tethered to her sunken car is as gorgeous as it is unsettling, while a modest home boasts a bedroom with a ceiling so vaulted one nearly keeps an eye out for Quasimodo. Robert Mitchum was never better (nor more terrifying) as the false prophet chasing the kids of his latest victim, and the poetic realist trip down the river transcends time and space. A religious parable, social commentary, horror movie and lyrical travelogue, “The Night of the Hunter” is perhaps too encompassing to be restricted to its West Virginia setting, but its tone always has a clear Southern mood.

The Long, Hot Summer (Martin Ritt, 1958)

An adaptation of William Faulkner’s “The Hamlet,” with all references to the Snopes excised, admittedly feels like a “Godfather” film without Corleones, but “The Long, Hot Summer” is too good to dismiss. It boasts a dynamite cast of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward in their first film collaboration, as well as Orson Welles as Will Varner, so gruff and slurring it sounds like he engaged in a drinking contest with Faulkner and lost. Marred by a bewilderingly happy ending that cuts against the rest of the film’s tone, “The Long, Hot Summer” nevertheless shines for its overall atmosphere of sadness and longing, not only in its romances but in its depiction of a simple South becoming increasingly antiquated for better and worse.

In the Heat of the Night (Norma Jewison, 1967)

Jewison’s film about a displaced Philadelphia detective stuck in Mississippi has its moments of on-the-nose commentary, from closeups of a Confederate flag emblem on a fender to some stiff dialogue. Yet, it’s held up better than perhaps any other Hollywood movie on race to come out of the Civil Rights era, or any period. Nuanced and even-handed rather than bludgeoning, “In the Heat of the Night” uses Poitier’s and Steiger’s perfect performances as the bedrock for a film that examines prejudice as it cuts both ways, even if it causes internal strife.

Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)

“Nashville” is a microcosmic picture of the 1970s from the view of a country music industry simultaneously modernizing and clinging to optimistic, even hokey views of the past. Altman’s camera drifts among the self-absorbed, oblivious characters for hours, touching upon every cynical business decision and nationalistic pander; it even spares more than a few shots for the condescending liberals who think they’re documenting this place but don’t even have the decency to let these people dig their own graves. The campaign van of a politician circles this realm like a shark, the deliberate lack of party identification highlighting the vagueness of messages of political outsiderdom and change blasting from the car’s speakers. The finale, an explosive resolution that turns Nashville 1975 into Dallas 1963, leads to what may be the most poetic expression of disgust in cinema as Altman’s camera, having finally seen enough, pulls back into the heavens and turns away from this sordid scene.

One False Move (Carl Franklin, 1992)

Billy Bob Thornton’s first and best screenplay is a masterful neo-noir that, in true Southern fashion, gets more leisurely the deeper it moves into a small Arkansas town anticipating the coming storm of three murderers and coke dealers. But Carl Franklin’s direction never once loses its grasp on the underlying tension or the naturalistic investigation of Southern mores. Race in this movie is like an appendix, a vestigial remnant of unevolved times that can nevertheless flare up and make its presence painfully known. Franklin displays a gift for showing violence in grisly terms without fetisihizing it, while the performances across the board, especially the surprising range of Bill Paxton, are phenomenal. The film was underseen even upon release but was extensively advocated by numerous critics, and time has only proven them more correct.

George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000)

Set in a rusted-over town in North Carolina, David Gordon Green’s debut “George Washington” is an elegiac, yet surprisingly warm, tour of post-industrial Americana as filtered through the childhood memories of a particularly horrible summer. The term “post-racial” has become tediously overused, but Green approaches his black and white youths not with kumbaya race blindness but a grace that unites the characters even as it respects the historical progression of their races. Balancing Terrence Malick’s spiritual montage with Charles Burnett’s humanist realism, Green tackles social, political and human themes with grace and the most acutely felt Southern intimacy ever put to film.

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2001)

A cornpone retelling of Homer’s “Odyssey,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” brings the Coen brothers’ simultaneously mocking and loving view of oddball regional characters to the South. Given the heavy debt the pair have always owed to Flannery O’Connor, it was only a matter of time. Roger Deakins’ digitally colorized cinematography gives the film a beautiful sepia glow to the loopy yet sharp farce, which takes more from Preston Sturges than just the title (an allusion to “Sullivan’s Travels”). Though it parades through the darker side of the South — from crime to the Klan — “O Brother” is nevertheless one of the Coens’ more charming films, and one of their funniest.

Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani, 2008)

Given the South’s tangled racial history, it is perhaps understandable that films dealing with race rarely make it past the Civil Rights Movement. But Ramin Bahrani, the natural-born son of Iranian parents, has made maybe the first film to reveal, without overselling it, the multicultural state of the South’s urban centers. Loosely adapted from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry,” “Goodbye Solo” concerns a depressed, solitary old man who hires a cabbie for a one-way trip to Blowing Rock, where he intends to commit suicide. Complicating this simple setup is the fact that the cabbie is a vivacious and kind Senegalese immigrant and the old man is played by one of Elvis Presley’s childhood friends and bodyguards. A story of almost constant heartbreak, “Goobdye Solo” is also affirming and forward-thinking, a poetic view of the old and new South coming together and finding some kind of understanding, even if some differences can never be bridged.

For more on Southern movies, see “The South on Screen,” our list of Southern-themed movies coming out in 2012.

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  • Hunter Murphy / January 6, 2012

    An underrated movie about the South which deserves much praise is “Hounddog.” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0415856/).

    I was surprised how director and writer Deborah Kampmeier captured the tensions of our sometimes-tough way of life. Told from the point of view of a precocious girl played by the brilliant Dakota Fanning, the story follows her violent and troubled childhood in the South. I thought it was as poetic a movie as any I’ve seen about our complicated homeland.

    Of course, there’s a much-ballyhooed rape scene which may disturb some viewers, but the incident is more suggestive than graphic. The archetypal medicine man (played by the ingenuous Afemo Omilami, who did a stand-up job as Howlin’ Wolf in “Cadillac Records”) is one of the most compelling characters in the movie.

    The same question should be asked of a good book as of a good film: does it have life in it? “Hounddog” has Southern life in it and has it in abundance.

  • Orion Garland / July 9, 2016

    Where is Sling Blade and the real classic Smokey and the Bandit. You can’t say it isnt great, Sally Field, Jackie Gleason had standing ovations.