Hollywood South

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?

Trick-or-Treat Joel Chandler Harris Style

If I told you The Wren’s Nest was the home of a famous trickster, who would you guess I’m talking about?

Chances are, you would guess Brer Rabbit. And yes, the museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of this notorious, furry and beloved trickster hero. But that’s not who I mean.

Instead, what if I told you I was talking about Joel Chandler Harris?

That’s right! Just like the rabbit he wrote about, Harris was a notorious prankster with his family and friends. One of his favorite audiences for these pranks? The people riding the street-car with him during his daily commute. As a writer and associate editor for the Atlanta Constitution, Harris took the street-car from his house in West End to the newspaper’s office in downtown Atlanta every day. Specifically, he took the 8:30 AM car every day.

In her biography of Harris, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris, Julia Collier Harris detailed one of these pranks in which Harris made use of some discarded glass doll’s eyes to play a joke on a little girl and her up-tight grandmother. 

This seemed like a fittingly silly but potentially frightening trick to share with you before Halloween – in case you happen to have glass doll’s eyes laying around and are looking to spook someone.

Here is the full account:

“Once on his way to take the car father picked up a pair of blue-glass eyes which had fallen out of a doll’s head, and absent-mindedly put them in his pocket. Sitting in front of him on this particular trip was a sedate elderly woman and her little granddaughter. Father knew the lady only by sight and as one who stood greatly upon her dignity and at once the impish idea occurred to him to try the effect of the glass eyes on the little girl who peered at him from time to time over her grandmother’s shoulder. So he closed his own eyes, and after a fashion held the doll’s eyes in place with the muscles of his eyelids. When next the little one peeped at him, she was startled to see a pair of glassy optics where before she had only noticed the mild blue eyes of a stout, placid gentleman.

 “In alarm she whispered to her grandmother, ‘Gran’-ma, that man’s got the funniest eyes!’

“‘Sh! Sh! Child, don’t comment on people,’ warned her grandmother.

“But before long the lady herself shot a well-bred glance in father’s direction. There was nothing unusual  to be seen. In a few moments the glass eyes were readjusted, just in time to meet the little girl’s second stare with a particularly uncanny glitter. Again she whispered excitedly: –

“‘Gran’ma, I tell you that man has got somethin’ awful the matter with his eyes.’

“‘Why, child,’ replied the astonished lady, ‘you must be crazy. What are you talking about?’

“And when she could safely do so, she again glanced at father only to see a perfectly normal individual, looking dreamily out of the window. This comedy kept up for several minutes, until the lady began to suspect from the demeanor of the regular 8:30 West-Enders that she was being made the victim of a joke. Upon which she haughtily arose from her seat and casting as disdainful look in the direction of the offender left the car with her bewildered little charge in her train.” 

The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris, pages 245-247

It’s no wonder Harris felt an affinity for the tricky rabbit!

Something to Smile About

The Wren’s Nest is excited to announce that you can now support our organization when you shop on Amazon! 

That’s right. We are now a registered organization on AmazonSmile. This means that when you select us as your charity, Amazon will donate 0.5% of the price of eligible purchases to The Wren’s Nest. It is the equivalent of a cash-back option on a credit card, but with the cash-back going to the charity of your choice.

Of course, we would prefer you to shop locally, especially at our West End neighborhood businesses that have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic

However, if you are going to use Amazon for your shopping, you can now do so while helping us preserve Georgia’s oldest house museum and the home of Brer Rabbit.

How it works:

  1. Go to www.smile.amazon.com and sign-in or create your Amazon account.
  2. If you have created a new account, you will be directed to this landing page:
  3. In the box to “enter charity name,” type in “Joel Chandler Harris Association” (which is our official organization name) and then press search.
  4. This screen should appear:
  5. Press “select” and The Wren’s Nest will now be your charity organization!
  6. Remember that for us to receive the donation from your Amazon purchases, you need to go www.smile.amazon.com each time you shop!

 

 

If you already have an AmazonSmile account, to select The Wren’s Nest as your charity, you can follow this link

Alternatively, when you log into your account, hover your mouse over your currently selected charity (it should appear under the search bar at the top of the screen). A pop-up will appear with an option next to the name of your charity to change it. Then follow steps 3-6 of the above instructions.

We hope you will consider using AmazonSmile and have your future purchases make a difference towards preserving the art of storytelling.

It would certainly make us smile!

Brer Rabbit Sure is Tricky… to Carve

As we creep ever deeper into the autumn – and Halloween – season, I decided this past week to get into the spirit with a bit of pumpkin carving! On a beautiful, fall day, I ventured to a pumpkin patch and picked out a perfectly round, yet manageably-sized pumpkin. After enjoying some apple-cider donuts, I was ready to return home to start this year’s carving project.

I’m certainly no pumpkin carving artist, but I decided to challenge myself a little this year. I thought it would be fun to create a Brer Rabbit pumpkin carving.

It turns out, this was somewhat better in theory than in reality.

 

First, I picked this image, painted for The Wren’s Nest’s 100th anniversary, as my inspiration:

Next, I transformed the image into a pumpkin stencil using Photoshop – following these directions – which resulted in this:

Then, I scooped out my pumpkin, making sure to the save the seeds (which I’m snacking on as I write this post), and started on my carving journey:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the end result was not quite as clear as I had hoped:

I suppose this is just one more way that Brer Rabbit has made it tricky to capture him. Regardless, I had fun making my festive creation. And I’m certainly enjoying the roasted seeds of my labor.

If you’d be interested in using the stencil for your own carving, please email me at meredith@wrensnest.org for a copy. Perhaps the fault was with my carving skills, not the stencil.

The man in the dashiki

Akbar Imhotep, who celebrates his 35th anniversary as a storyteller at the Wren’s Nest this fall, did not know a single Brer Rabbit tale when he started performing at the house in late September 1985.

He began by telling African folk tales that were similar to the Uncle Remus stories Joel Chandler Harris popularized. One day the executive director at the time, Madeline Reamy, pulled him aside and asked, “Akbar, when are you going to tell some Uncle Remus stories?”

“As soon as I learn some,” he answered.

He learned some, and has been telling them ever since at the Wren’s Nest and in schools and community centers across Georgia.

Akbar is an important figure in the history of the Wren’s Nest. He has been associated with the house longer than just about anyone, including Joel Chandler Harris himself. More importantly, he represents a change in the way the Wren’s Nest presented its history and the legacy of the Brer Rabbit stories.

The Wren’s Nest had storytellers before Akbar, but they were usually people impersonating Harris or Uncle Remus, many of them holding forth at a plantation cabin in the back yard. Akbar was different. He was the first storyteller who personified the African origins of the majority of the Uncle Remus stories. He told African tales that were antecedents of the Harris stories and underscored their cultural roots by wearing a dashiki. 

“What was I going to wear: a suit and tie?” he says.

Akbar comes from Perry, Ga., where he fell under the spell of biblical stories and an uncle’s storytelling at an early age. After a stint at the University of Georgia, he settled in Atlanta during the 1970s and went to work as a stagehand and then as a puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts. You can hear him talk his background in an interview we did this summer.

When he first visited the Wren’s Nest with a school field trip group, he knew next to nothing about the house or the stories that had made it worthy of being a National Historic Landmark. Over the years, he has come to embody them.

We’re very glad he discovered us and helped interpret this legacy for new generations.

Congratulations, Akbar! May the story go on and on.

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