Some of the most beloved — and controversial — movies ever made have been set in the South. Think of To Kill a Mockingbird … and The Birth of a Nation. Forrest Gump … and Gone With the Wind.
And there’s that 1946 movie that’s of special interest to Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus aficionados, Song of the South, which has managed to push both buttons at different times.
In the Wren’s Nest’s sixth online book talk this year, we’ll discuss Hollywood’s take on the South with Ben Beard, author of the forthcoming volume, The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen. (Here’s the link to register for the session, which will start at 4 p.m. next Sunday, Nov. 8.)
Beard, a film critic and librarian, lives in Chicago but grew up in Pensacola and Atlanta, and has a native son’s interest in how his region has been depicted in the movies. “The South remains a complicated place on the big screen,” he writes, “somehow more racist and less racist than the rest of the country, more violent and less violent, urbanizing and progressing, yet always losing something too.”
Beard surveys scores of titles from more than a century of movies. He lingers on The Birth of a Nation (1915), the first blockbuster, which established the language of narrative film but grotesquely glorified the Klan; Gone With the Wind (1939), which he regards a very good movie but very bad history; A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), in which Tennessee Williams established the lurid mood of Southern drama; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which he regards as an exemplary movie even though he thinks Atticus Finch is overrated; Nashville (1975), Robert Altman’s exploration of country music and conservative politics; Forrest Gump (1993), which he considers an irresistible gimmick; and 12 Years a Slave (2013), which he thinks comes to the closest to telling the hard truth.
The South is not a movie genre like the Western, Beard writes, but setting a film in this region is a creative choice that communicates something. If a director wants Anywhere, USA, she sets it in Ohio or Iowa, not Louisiana or Georgia. The South is a character in itself, with a backstory and an accent.
So what does Beard think of Song of the South, the 1946 Disney version of the Uncle Remus stories, which the studio has come to feel so squeamish about that it has not released it in the United States since the 1980s?
Beard grew up watching the film numerous times as a kid. “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is imprinted on his mind. Yet now, in his 40s, the idea of re-watching the movie fills him with dread.
It’s complicated. Why don’t we let him explain during the book talk?