Author Ben Beard Answers Questions on Southern Fried Cinema

An interview with the writer of "The South Never Plays Itself"

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Q&A: Ben Beard, Author of The South Never Plays Itself

Bill Arceneaux: The pen being mightier than the sword so to speak, what part do movies play in the understanding of the American South, for both Southerners and non-Southerners alike?

Ben Beard: The South is a real place, and it’s also an invented idea.

This is the starting point of my book. The idea comes to us from dozens of sources, but movies were such a powerful cultural force in the 20th Century, I’ve chosen to focus on them. (I also love cinema, almost as much as life itself. And writing about early 20th Century drama isn’t as sexy or exciting.) The early movies dealing with the South as often as not gave us nostalgia for something that never existed, a pre-Lapsarian Eden.

I wrote this book in part to work through my own ambiguous feelings towards my home. I was born in Georgia, grew up in Florida, and educated in Alabama. I didn’t get north of the Mason-Dixon line until I was in my 20s. I set out to write a fun-to-read alternative history of the movies, focusing on the South and its representation. I ended up with an alternative history of the South itself. Only in America. As Scorsese put it, numerous times, our movies, ourselves.
The early Hollywood moguls—to a man, born poor, Jewish, and foreign-born, except for Harry Cohn—were empire-builders, myth-makers. For reasons both simple and complex, they bought into a vision of America that they knew was false, sold a set of myths, about the South in particular, that cemented a number of notions into the minds of the viewing public.

There was even a sub-genre of plantation films in the 1930s; Langston Hughes even wrote one, Way Down South, and it is a wild, Dionysian movie. Most of these films, including The Cabin in the Cotton, detail a way of life that was laid back, pleasurable, and filled with contentment, almost always overlooking the enslaved people who did all the work and suffered murder, assault, dismemberment, and physical and psychological oppression.

The lies were often by omission, but this doesn’t make them any less harmful. Which brings us to Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell wrote the novel as a defense of her heritage, as she saw it, and as an attack on the mainstream narrative of the Civil War. She knew what she was doing. She framed the story of Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler as emblematic of the South. A gun-runner and a plantation owner. Does anyone really identify with these two characters? We do. In part because the film is so well made, the art and costume design of MGM, the lighting, the sets, all with David Selznick frantically micromanaging every setup and every scene, writing memos on every frame of film, and shooting some 80 hours of footage. (A diet of Benzedrine, cigarettes, and bananas will do that to you.)

The movies give us a number of simplistic lenses to view the South. The South as another country. The South as a violent, racist backwater. The South as abandoned by God. The South as a playground for the landed rich. The South as a haven for a better, simpler way of life. The South as a place filled with religious crazies. Okay, this last one is kind of true.

The point: the South as we conceive of it doesn’t exist without the movies. No one sets a film in a Southern milieu unless they want to comment on the South itself, or as often as not, use the setting as an extra character, causing mischief or violence or just plain weirdness in the background.

The movies often treat the South as a monolithic thing, as if the beaches of Miami and the farms of the Mississippi Delta have anything in common, or the raucous blues clubs in Memphis and the seedy military outpost in Columbus, Georgia. This is wrong, but I get it.

The best films dealing with the South don’t peddle these ridiculous clichés. The best films dealing with the South evoke an entire world. Mud. Slingblade. My Cousin, Vinny. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Little Foxes. Queen & Slim. Wise Blood. The Southerner. Moonlight. The best films dealing with the South deliver scenes that pop with local color, celebrating—or excavating—little truths behind or inside the decades of lies.

For a long time, the White Southerner on-screen was either racist, a dumbass, violent, or all three. Black Southerners were depicted as lazy, folksy, wise, and complacent. Women were contented with their place, just happy doing housework, or beaten into submission by the hardship of their lives. (Or if it’s a Tennessee Williams play, undersexed and consumed with desire.)
This narrative has in recent years been corrected. 12 Years a Slave. The Free State of Jones. Mudbound.

The Southerner has to come to terms with the history of the South. Otherwise, we face a kind of race madness. If you elide slavery and segregation from the American story, nothing about our country makes sense. The non-Southerner has to accept that racism is an American problem—much easier now that the police are shooting black people in every state, and the new shows like Them and Lovecraft Country detailing racism in the 1950s in Los Angeles and Chicago and Ohio; I love Them, by the by, but it is a grueling and punishing piece of pop horror—and that the South has given us the blues, jazz, rock, and country music, along with some of the best American writers and most of the great singers and musicians.

BA: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, no matter what everyone feels or wants, is forever tied as the seed of modern American cinema and the depiction of the American South. Has there been any film or video essay that comes close to addressing and confronting that movie’s place in our history?

BB: The Birth of a Nation built Hollywood. It was the first blockbuster, an enormous moneymaker, and brought Louis Mayer into the business of producing. It invented a lot of the language of movies. And it is irredeemably evil. It caused actual murder in the world. The KKK reformed after the popularity of the movie. I was biased against it from the start, as I don’t care for silent cinema—I know, it’s sacrilege for cinephiles to admit it, but I just don’t care for the aesthetics, except for some of Buster Keaton, Nosferatu, and The Passion of Joan of Arc—but the movie was more disturbing than I even expected. The black characters are vile caricatures, indolent rapists and violent marauders. God.

We can’t ignore it. We can’t pretend that our country is something it isn’t. But like the great Propagandhi song from the 90s, we have to “focus a moment, not an approval.”

We have to deal with this movie through context and careful study. The best response is probably BlackKklansman. In film school, Spike Lee watched it with his fellow students, and afterwards all anyone could talk about was the action scenes and the formal innovations. Lee was fuming. What about the racism and violence? What about the film’s political point of view? In BlackKklansman, he intercuts footage of the movie with the dumbass Klansmen cheering and hooting and laughing. The Klan does show the film in celebratory gatherings; a friend of mine, Randall Williams, attended a screening back in the 1980s and reported on it at the time.

Any defenders of this movie should keep that in mind: KKK members watch it as a laudatory ritual.

Finally, I loved the beginning of Long Shot, when Seth Rogen plays a Jewish undercover reporter and at a neo-Nazi group, at the beginning of the movie, he introduces himself. “Heil. Heil, everybody. White power . . . obviously.”

BA: Trash Humpers comes up towards the end of the book. What is the significance of Harmony Korine’s misfit and miscreant cinema as it relates to the landscape of the South?

BB: Harmony Korine is a wonderful director in part because he doesn’t seem to give a shit. Gummo, set in a post-storm Ohio somewhere, feels like the out-of-the-way places of the South, a weird, sometimes funny, study in grotesques. If there were crime, or more cruelty, it could be a Flannery O’Connor story. But it’s Springbreakers that really hits home. It captures the zeitgeist, of a failing America, hollowed out somehow through hedonism and technology, the false promise of beauty and the weird ritual of turning young people into objects, commodities to be traded. I love this movie. It’s almost an essay, but also filled with fiction. It follows four college girls as they travel south robbing banks and ending up in a drug deal gone sour with a white rapper played by James Franco. It’s rich and contradictory and wonderful and it gets at true things in our culture, in Florida, in America.

Korine gnaws on the strangeness of the South. The house of Crosses in Prattville. The cryptic messages adorning church billboards. The drive-through liquor stores. The busted out old oil towns. The garish, twilight, busted-out shopping malls and isolated gas stations. Trash Humpers is a profoundly disturbing movie, intentionally ugly and unsettling. I would save this film for Korine completists.

BA: Do people inform the movies or do the movies inform people?

BB: Movies inform people. They speak to us from different eras, different value systems, different countries. Their image sticks in our cellular memory forever. You can’t unwatch a movie. Yes, people make them, but then they take on a life of their own. D.W. Griffith didn’t want the KKK to reform and start lynching people; by all accounts he was a nice man and a visionary artist. But that’s what happened when Birth of a Nation was released. Art outlasts people. Movies change over time—without changing at all, one of the conundrums of cinema—but reverberate through our culture, our music, TV, novels, plays, conversations. People think movies have lost their cultural cache. Really? Trump, running for re-election and at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, was talking about Gone with the Wind and Parasite at his rallies. HBO took it off their streaming services for a week to add a little intro, a people went nuts. The movie is over 80 years old. The past isn’t dead, eh? As Faulkner says, it isn’t even the past.

BA: When I lived in Georgia for a time, I’d see Gone with the Wind merchandise stands and kiosks at almost every potential tourist stop. Is this a film that truly deserves such recognition? What would you say if places started selling Buster Keaton’s The General t-shirts and bobbleheads?

BB: Back to Gone with the Wind. I don’t know. It speaks to something in us, the indomitable spirit of Scarlett. It also gave Southerners a view of themselves that was tough, resilient, a land of survivors, victims of an over-reaching federal government. Does this sound like how southerners view themselves today? It is a very fine movie, technically. The colors are beautiful. Gable and Leigh are sexy. I prefer the avaricious Little Foxes, but I love William Wyler. Why not The General as the seminal piece of southern celluloid? I have no idea. Pat Conroy captured the book and movie’s appeal the best, saying it had an element of the attack, a rejection of the commonly held view. And it changed history.

BA: “Movies don’t change, yet they change all the time.” I suppose the same can be said for history too. Is it film and art that ultimately molds and remolds our visions of the South, or are we just stuck with the ghosts and sins of the past, no matter what?

BB: We are stuck with the ghosts; we call them movies. Most of the actors from the classic era are dead. Their likenesses are trapped in surreal time loops, re-animated whenever we hit play. They act out their roles in the prescribed manner. They can’t learn, or change their mistakes. They go through the tragic flaws of their characters, passing along the myopia to each successive generation.

But the South has been the source of a reckoning, and a re-imagining of late. With Queen & Slim. With Mudbound. With Just Mercy. With Free State of Jones. There’s room in the ether for black directors and writers to get their own piece of the land, cinematically, and this is leading to other voices, too. We’re getting a deeper view.

I’ll finish with Mudbound. The film follows two families, one white and one black, who live near each other in late 1930s Mississippi. Henry McAllan is the white farm-owner, trying to build a life for his family during the Great Depression, besieged by outside forces, including natural disasters. He is a character right out of Faulkner, and historically, the hero of the movie. But in this movie, he isn’t the hero. In many ways, he’s the villain. His desires turn him cruel and callous towards the black sharecroppers on his land. He is their tormentor. He refuses to see the system that enriches him at their expense. He’s a hero in his own mind, a self-made man, but the very devil to the black families he is systematically destroying.

I quote a writer in the book who says slavery is the hidden engine of American discourse. We can’t forget, but we won’t remember. So we have this ongoing tragedy—shootings, mass incarceration, defunded public education, etc.—that requires Americans to grapple with the past, and present. Our culpability. The ways we’ve benefited from the system. We have to engage in some kind of conversation around reparations. Ibram Kendi calls bigotry an existential threat. I agree. We can’t scapegoat the South—either externally, as is often the case with the movies, or internally—to absorb all of America’s racial sins. But we can’t duck them either. So what do we do? I’m hesitant to peddle clichés, although being kind and extending empathy never hurt anyone, but really, we have to find ways, systemically, to make the field level and to make some attempt at righting the vast wrongs.

Damn. I wanted to end on a joke.

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