Hollywood's War Against the South

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It
is no surprise when yet another Hollywood film demonizes the South
as nothing but a den of ignorance, poverty and bigotry.

For
the most part, Hollywood persists in promoting the fiction that
the states of the former Confederacy are stuck in a time warp, somewhere
between 1865 and 1968. How many films produced in the last 20 years
and set in the South can you name that don't have race relations
at their core? Even a brilliant film like Joel and Ethan Coen's
"O
Brother, Where Art Thou?
" can't avoid dredging up the Klan,
although, refreshingly, the Coen brothers link the Klan to Progressive
Era "reformers."

However,
it is a surprise to see a mainstream newspaper take note
of Hollywood's anti-Southern myopia.

In
the Friday, Feb. 8, edition of USA Today, writer Scott Bowles
takes
on the issue
with surprising directness.

Bowles
quotes Marc Smirnoff, editor of Oxford American magazine,
who correctly recognizes that the South is the last remaining target
for vicious stereotyping. You can insult Southerners with impunity,
while everyone else is off limits.

"If
studios portrayed ethnic groups this way," Smirnoff tells Bowles,
"they'd burn down the Hollywood sign."

I
guess Hollywood should just be happy that we Southerners have learned
some restraint since the days of the Fire-Eaters and the Sumner-Brooks
Debate.

Independent
filmmaker Gary Hawkins goes further, telling Bowles that Hollywood
sees the South as "a foreign, frightening, funny place"
that is "easy to demonize… for dramatic purposes."

The
latest offender is the Oscar-nominated film "Monster's Ball,"
starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton.

Central
to the film is an interracial love story. That is something that
could be controversial anywhere in America (see, for instance, Spike
Lee's film "Jungle
Fever
"). In this case, however, it is an excuse for trotting
out the usual Southern bigots, straight from central casting.

Peter
Boyle, as the Thornton character's father, plays the embodiment
of the stereotypical redneck racist.

All
of this goes against history. Since the 1960s, race relations in
the South have been far better than in the North. Even during the
worst of the Civil Rights Era, the South never had riots to match
those of Los Angeles, Detroit or Chicago, as historian Richard Lawson
tells Bowles. (But Southerners already knew that.)

When
so-called Civil Rights organizations have nothing better to do than
attack Confederate monuments and drive barbecue baron Maurice
Bessinger
to the brink of bankruptcy, you know there are no
real race problems left in the South.

But
that doesn't matter in Hollywood.

Sometimes,
even when a film isn't set in the South, the bad guys are Southerners.
This includes a couple of films that are favorites of mine, in spite
of their reflexive use of Southerners as villains.

The
Bruce Willis sci-fi epic "The
Fifth Element
" is set in the far future, as removed from
the Old South as you can get. But the villain, played by Gary Oldman,
has a drawl that would put Fannie Flagg to shame.

Then
there is Quentin Tarantino's crime film, "Pulp
Fiction
," set in California.

Like
any good crime story, "Pulp Fiction" is full of unsavory
characters. But when Tarantino needs someone truly reprehensible
to contrast to his protagonists, he turns to a bunch of Southern
rednecks.

To drive the point home, the rednecks run a gun shop where they
proudly display a Confederate battle flag. And to think that I was
unaware that Los Angeles was home to so many flag-waving gun dealers
from Dixie.

When
a filmmaker does get the South right, he often has to apologize
for it.

Ang
Lee's "Ride
With the Devil"
is a masterful tale of Civil War brutality.
It plays fair with both sides and includes a wonderful speech in
which a Southerner explains why the South cannot win the war. (It
boils down to the North's puritanical impulse to "improve"
the world, never mind what those to be improved may think. Against
that, the South's desire merely to be left alone is no match.)

In
interviews after the film's release, Lee had to defend
himself
against the charge of romanticizing the South.

I
should note that it took a Taiwanese-born director to do the South
justice. Perhaps Lee sees some symmetry between the Confederacy's
struggle against the North and his country's relationship with mainland
China. Or maybe it just helps not to have been subjected to American
public schools.

Bowles
quotes actor Robert Duvall: "If you want to make a movie about
the real South, I wouldn't hire a director north of the Mason-Dixon
line."

Amen.

February
18, 2002

Franklin
Harris [send
him e-mail
] is
a newspaper reporter and columnist in Alabama. His Web site is www.pulpculture.net.

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