Sunday night is Hollywood’s annual tribute to narcissism, hedonism and voyeurism known as the Academy Awards.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have only watched the Oscars a couple of times in my whole life, and I don’t think I’ve ever watched a complete broadcast. I have no plans to watch it this year. Depending on what time the Daytona 500 finishes, you may or may not switch over and catch a little of it.
But because three of the nine films nominated for best picture are either set in the South or have Southern themes, I began contemplating Southern movies.
What makes a movie “Southern?” Is it as simple as a being set in the South or does it revolve around Southern characters regardless of geographic location? Are there a set of themes that make a film Southern? What is the difference between Southern movies and New South movies? What milestone movie marked the change? Why are Southern accents always so bad in movies?
So while the Oscars have little to interest me, these questions intrigue me. Let’s take them in order.
First, what makes a movie Southern? I don’t think it is a function of geography or character or theme. I believe it can be any of the three, but those films we most strongly identify as Southern have at least two of three. A movie can be set in the South and not be Southern. Just look at all of the movies being filmed in Georgia these days thanks to the gracious tax breaks and active recruitment of production studios.
A few years ago, Carla and I rented “Life as We Know It” staring Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel. It was set in Atlanta, but there was nothing particularly Southern about the characters. It did have a strong theme of family woven throughout. I would consider it a Southern movie, but not as much as, say, “The Blind Side,” which had all three, complete with bad Southern accents.
Next, what constitutes a Southern theme? Here, I think you have to look to Southern literature. Some universally-agreed upon Southern literary themes include, but aren’t limited to, the aforementioned family, history, tradition, community, justice, faith, race, agriculture and the land, social class and hardship.
There are plenty of films that have these themes that aren’t Southern in any way, but it’s hard to find the reverse – a Southern movie that doesn’t employ these themes. Even something as ridiculous as, say, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” has multiple themes of family, faith, class and hardship, not to mention the whole dialect thing.
That brings us to the question of whether Southern movies are any different in the New South. I think so. Historical epics aside, I think New South films portray race in very different ways. Gone are the days when archetypes veer into stereotypes. One example is the 2012 remake of “Steel Magnolias” with an all African-American cast.
New South movies take traditional Southern themes and either approach them in an unorthodox format or reverse the perspective and look at a narrative from other angles.
For me, this began with 1991’s “Fried Green Tomatoes.” By moving back and forth between the past and present and making the societal underdogs triumphant along the way, what may have been a maudlin and superficial Southern film brings a thoughtful edge that ultimately endorses radically different worldviews from the Old South.
As for the bad Southern accents? Well, I’m afraid it’s just part of the territory. There is no overarching Southern dialect, and too many movies seem to ignore the subtle differences within the South. Those of us with well-trained ears will wince when a character set in a movie in Virginia breaks out in an Alabama drawl. Occasionally, the actors themselves hail from Southern locales and grew up immersed in the dialect bringing an authentic sound. Think Conyers, Ga.,-native Holly Hunter in just about anything she’s done.
So whether or not Lincoln, Beasts of the Southern Wild or Django Unchained win best picture, it has been a high-profile year for Southern films. Given the rise of the New South in all forms of media, I don’t think it will be the last.
What’s your favorite Southern movie? Check out this list on Wikipedia for help, and a leave a comment with your vote. We’ll call it “The Southern Oscars.”