The South on Screen - Part One
Posted on: 28/08/2014
Under the Deep South's searing sun, grotesque souls swelter through blighted landscapes, scouring decayed plantation houses for salvation or sinking into the swamps of their own depravity. In cinema, the American South bare-knuckle boxes with its decadent past – from the opulence built by slavery and defeat in the Civil War to the tumultuous history of race relations and religious conservatism – hoping to emerge victorious and renewed.
In David Gordon Green's Joe, screening from 27 Aug - 16 Sep, Nicolas Cage stars as an ex-con edging towards absolution via hard work, loose women and whiskey in rural Texas. He's a familiar figure in the pantheon of grubby Southern saints – a primal, calloused, and fractured man – the angelic ancestor of Brando's Stanley Kowalski and cousin of Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle.
Shaken from his self-imposed exile by a young drifter named Gary (Tye Sheridan), Joe is thrust into a confrontation with the boy's father, Wade (Gary Poulter), a destructive lush who isn't afraid to dish out a few licks on his long-suffering family.
Neither man is the mint julep-sipping, Southern gentleman clad in crisp seersucker you'd expect from a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. In cinema, Southern hospitality extends to a hit of meth, fists of moonshine and maybe, if you're really unlucky, a canoe trip down the Cahulawassee River.
In honour of Joe, we're going on our own adventure through the South on screen.
While Birth of a Nation (1915) was likely the first film to depict the South and race relations – by glamorising the Ku Klux Klan – and Gone with the Wind (1936) delved into the Civil War and the region's fading magnificence, two later entries in the southern cinematic canon stand as must-see experiences.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Based on Tennessee Williams' Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire set much of the tone for the cinematic South. When tarnished Southern belle Blanche (Vivien Leigh) visits her sister, Stella (Kim Hunter), she encounters Stella's husband, Marlon Brando's swaggering Stanley. The audience is thus initiated into the sultry, sweaty and sensual South.
The film also demonstrates the moral turpitude that continually characterises the celluloid South. For a start, it culminates in a rape scene that was almost cut because of the Hays Code, while Blanche is not the paradigm of civility she pertains to be. She not only hides her alcoholism in the French Quarter apartment, but also her affair with a student.
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
There's nothing scarier in the South than religion. The land of brimstone-spewing preachers, evangelical snake-handlers and Biblical justice, the South’s conservatism is often rendered in the shadows of burning crucifixes. It’s no wonder that Robert Mitchum’s turn as Reverend Harry Powell has carved its way into collective consciousness.
Armed with a switchblade and a Bible, serial killer Powell poses as a preacher, criss-crossing the country to marry and murder women, his knuckles etched with epitaphs of his modus operandi, ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’. In Charles Laughton’s adaptation of Davis Grubb’s novel of the same name, Powell woos Willa Harper (Shelley Winters), his former cellmate’s widow, in an attempt to find his loot. It turns out, however, that only Willa's children know its location, and what follows is a cat-and-mouse between evil and innocence amongst the bleak rural landscape.
Also see: To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Long Hot Summer (1958).
It's no secret that the American South has a blemished past when it comes to questions of race. There have been many important films that have captured the struggle to acquire, implement and maintain civil rights, from pioneering African American author and filmmaker Oscar Micheaux's The Homesteader (1919) to the harrowing 12 Years a Slave (2013).
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Norman Jewison's adaptation of the John Ball novel of the same name stars Sidney Poitier as Virgil Tibbs, a streetwise black cop from Philadelphia investigating a murder in a racist, Mississippi town. Not only is it a satisfying whodunit, but the film was also progressive for confronting the still-simmering Civil Rights Movement. Released only two years after the Civil Rights Act had passed, the film pairs Tibbs with a bigoted Southern sheriff (Rod Steiger), and portrays the changes taking place in American society while exposing the rawness of a country embracing desegregation.
Indicative of the continued strain on race relations at the time, Sidney Poitier reportedly slept with a gun under his pillow while filming in Tennessee, and an infamous scene in which Tibbs is slapped by a white murder suspect and strikes him back (instead of suffering the indignation stoically) caused controversy amongst post-Civil Rights audiences.
The film also took home five Academy Awards®, including Best Picture, and immortalised the line "They call me Mr Tibbs".
Monster's Ball (2001)
Ostensibly a romantic drama, director Marc Forster's Monster's Ball keenly examines lingering prejudices and the personal ways discrimination can be overcome. Through the relationship between racist, alcoholic prison guard Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton) and black widower Leticia (Halle Berry), Foster demonstrates that compassion, humanity and love can transcend race.
The New York Times lauded how "Mr. Forster's deliberate pacing and the gritty, smudged look that Roberto Schaefer, the cinematographer, brings to the workaday modern South create an atmosphere heavy with the buried emotions of grief, rage and terror."
Roger Ebert, meanwhile, hailed Halle Berry's Oscar®-winning performance, saying "as Leticia rejoined Hank in the last shot of the movie, I was thinking about her as deeply and urgently as about any movie character I can remember."
See Also: A Time to Kill, In the Electric Mist, Birth of a Nation, Mississippi Burning
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Stay tuned for our second installment of The South on Screen, which looks at Southern Gothic films, contemporary classics and TV shows depicting the American South.
Joe screens from Wednesday 27 August - Tuesday 16 September, 2014.comments powered by Disqus
The Night of the Hunter (1955)