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A History of the South on Film

Examining the South’s representation on the big screen, from “Gone With the Wind” to “Selma.” 

by Zachary Lundgren

Southern literature, Southern cooking, Southern music. These categories, even to those who have never visited the South, are recognizable and well-defined. Southern literature tends to be dark, Gothic in its wrestling with the past, whereas Southern cooking tends to wrestle with your waistline, but what about Southern film? How do we recognize and define great films that explore themes and the identity of the American South? In light of the upcoming Oscars, I take a look at those Southern films that have been recognized, those that have not, and try to mince out what exactly it means to be a film of the American South.

selma-movie-posterConsidering films based in the South or with a purely Southern focus, only six films have earned the title of Best Picture at the Academy Awards. While that doesn’t seem like much, considering the awards began in 1927, the South does have stories to tell. 2013’s Best Picture winner, “12 Years a Slave,” masterfully and tragically retold Solomon Northup’s harrowing experience as a free man who was sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South. In this year’s selection of eight Best Picture nominees, “Selma” stands out as the lone representative of the Southern experience. Recounting the infamous march from Selma to Birmingham, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s personal and national triumphs and struggles, “Selma” brings to life one of the South’s most important steps toward equality.

Of course, the list of Best Picture winners is not the only mark of a great film. Other notable films released in the last decade include: “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “Django Unchained,” “The Help,” “Winter’s Bone” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” All of these Southern films, while nominated, failed to capture the elusive Best Picture title. Yet, they still — in an astonishingly wide array of theme and scope — capture the American South and its evolving state throughout history.

Of the six films that have won Best Picture — “Gone With the Wind,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Forrest Gump,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Driving Miss Daisy” and “No Country for Old Men” (feel free to argue against the latter, based on the McCarthy novel, but it is hard to deny the Southern Gothic themes present in the book and film) — half share a common theme: the African-American experience in the American South. This is intriguing, yet not wholly unexpected. The African-American experience is a deeply important part of the history of the United States, but seems most acute and complex when regarded in the South.

Gone With the Wind posterThe evolution of Southern film and, in a way, a major piece of Southern culture, can be drawn from 1939 to 2013 — from “Gone With the Wind” to “12 Years a Slave.” From the quietus of the antebellum South to the one of the greatest true stories of hope and survival, these two films serve as effective benchmarks in the history of Southern film and also echo some of its most relevant themes, including romanticism, slavery, the concept of place, equality and self identity.

And yet, this evolution is cyclical in nature. In 1939, “Gone With the Wind,” featuring a classic cast and stunning special effects for its time, set the stage for future, epic films, and depicted the inevitability of change that swept through the South. Seventy-four years later, “12 Years a Slave” returns us to the Deep South and reexamines some of its darkest moments. In a way, it seems as if “12 Years a Slave” picks up right where “Gone With the Wind” had left us, struggling with the past, what it means to our present and how it will shape our tomorrow. The South, more so than other regions, must often return to its past to examine our stories, some beautiful and some haunting, in a quest to discover our identity. Through the medium of film, we are able to examine who we are today, where we have come from and how we will define and represent ourselves in the days to come.

For Southern film, we still struggle with the issues of slavery and, in the post-antebellum South, inequality. In some instances, transcending race, these films explore the larger notions of living with a troubled past, of hope and reconciliation, and how to balance these concepts within a single narrative.

It is also important to note that “12 Years a Slave,” which primarily depicts the horrors of slavery, does not end in this darkness but, rather, on a note of hope. Solomon returns home, reunites with his family and devotes his life to the cause of abolition. In the representation of Southern film, this is important. This hopeful conclusion shows the strength of one man who survived the unimaginable and made it his life’s work to help fight this injustice.

Southern film follows a similar route by shining a light on past sins, while concurrently exploring how this act of reflection and remediation serves the present. As the old adage goes, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.” Southern film, if nothing else, needs not worry about forgetting this lesson.

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