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Hollywood's War Against the South

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