Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race During the Civil Rights Struggle, by Allison Graham. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001. Cloth, $39.95, 224pp. ISBN 0-80186-615-4.
If you watch Hollywood movies or television shows set in the South, I recommend that you read this book because it provides a perfect critical lens through which to appreciate what lies behind all the representations of the South flashing across the screen. The beauty, the mystery, the violence, the ignorance — all the extremes of American character and landscape that are so often projected onto one region.
If you are an American, I recommend that you read this book as part of your ongoing investigations about your own national identity, which has from the beginning defined itself as “good” in opposition to an inferior Other. This has never been truer than since 9/11, now that the concept of an “axis of evil” guides U.S. foreign policy.
If you are a Southerner, you are required to read this book. It will help you to pull together all those mixed feelings of denial and disgust that come into play when you see, for instance, that 1997 episode of The X-Files about the incestuous mutant rednecks with its smug references to both campy and classic screen images of the South: The Andy Griffith Show, Deliverance (1972), and Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) (see Graham 185). It will also help you better imagine how the rest of the country and the world perceive you and your home.
My only criticism of this book is the title’s inability to convey the full scope of the project: Graham’s study is about big- and small-screen representations of the South from the ’50s and ’60s, but her focus is primarily the troubling and contradictory images of white Southerners in the context of national flirtations with Southern culture, from Elvis and The Beverly Hillbillies to George Wallace and the KKK. In this meticulously researched and accessibly written book, she covers such issues as the eugenics movement and class politics, white women’s sexuality, the star personae of Elvis and Andy Griffith, and the political power of Southern populists. Her methodology is part of what makes the book so readable: it’s interdisciplinary but not jargon-laden, drawing on the most exciting recent academic studies in cinema, culture, class, history, sociology, whiteness, gender, sexuality, and politics. The close readings in the book are never so detailed that they become tedious, but even for readers unfamiliar with the primary sources, Graham’s analysis is persuasive and fascinating to read. There is no way to adequately summarize all the ingenious bits of reading pleasure in this book, so I can’t detail the discussions of Marlon Brando’s fake Southern accents, the Southern setting in The Miracle Worker, or the long overdue taking to task of the whole Forrest Gump nightmare.
Graham’s overall argument is completely convincing—in fact it had me slapping the table hollering yes, yes, yes several times while reading it. (Honestly, the Elvis section is brilliant — go read it.) In her introduction, “Remapping Dogpatch,” she glosses in a few pages how the American media got into the habit of caricaturing the South. Drawing on a long tradition that included H. L. Mencken’s condescending coverage of the 1925 Scopes “monkey” trial and Margaret Bourke-White’s elegiac Depression-era photographs of impoverished farmers, along with the literary legacies of writers like Faulkner and the white supremacist cinematic landmark The Birth of a Nation (1915), American ideas about the South took a particularly sinister turn during the Civil Rights years. When it became necessary to portray not only the amusing ignorance of backwoods bumpkins and noble planters brought low by the Lost Cause, but also the despised rural poor and white racists of every class, the culture industries geared up for a new Southern campaign. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing school segregation, Northern journalists were eager to find examples of rabid white supremacists resisting the new law in dismal-sounding places like Arkansas and Alabama. When combined with the greed of television and movie executives to exploit the newly popular caricature — the comic, folksy “harmless hillbilly” in the persons of Andy Griffith and Tennessee Ernie Ford — the contradictory pantheon of white Southerners was born (5). Graham quotes Jim Goad’s apt summary of this phenomenon from his provocative book The Redneck Manifesto: “The poor white originally entered the national consciousness with a hillbilly clown puppet on one hand and a redneck villain puppet on the other” (117).
But her research also provides a kind of dramatic historical narrative to this dual Southerner in subsequent years: the harmless yokel was brutally wiped out in the “rural massacre” of 1970, when CBS canceled The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., The Jim Nabors Hour, Green Acres, Petticoat Junction, Hee Haw, and two new Griffith vehicles (182). In a shift from comedy to drama, the dominant images of the South now became the new dualism: “the rise of the hillbilly from hell was an essential factor in the public redemption of the southern lawman” (182). Redneck and white trash maniacs from movies like Easy Rider (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969),Deliverance (1972), and of course The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) provided American audiences with “a cautionary tale of the unrepressed savagery awaiting civilized white men just off the road in the southern wilderness” (182). To this short but suggestive list I would also add later titles such as The River Wild (1994) and Breakdown (1997), and many other 1990s movies which move the province of the murderous white trash beyond the traditional boundaries of the South, but still rely on the notion of the rural poor white as monster.
But her other major point is equally compelling: “the centrality of the ‘cracker’ to our understanding of American racism cannot … be overestimated” (13). In tandem with this idea, one of her most brilliant analytical feats is her assessment of the Hollywood fixation on the Southern man of the law: from Andy in Mayberry and Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird (1964) to the spate of Grisham lawyers and the revisionist Civil Rights sagas such as Mississippi Burning, and Ghosts of Mississippi. The white Southern lawman stands in opposition to the white trash monster, indeed, depends on the white trash monster to make him look heroic. As Graham points out, during and after the Civil Rights movement, the poor white trash character emerges onto the screen as a scapegoat for white racism while at the same time giving educated privileged whites the heroic role of disciplining and punishing them, creating “the spectacle of racial redemption, for with the expulsion of the lawless redneck from southern society, the moral purity of whiteness itself is affirmed” (13). Of course, the ultimate irony is that the white lawman emerges the hero of the movie while the African American characters remain in the background, mere victims of racism requiring rescue by the fearless lawman. In movies like Mississippi Burning, this can lead to a major distortion of history, ignoring the historically antagonistic role of the FBI toward the Civil Rights movement and ignoring the real-life heroism of African American Southerners.
A recent movie such as The Gift (2000) might be an interesting case study for an application of Graham’s analytical model. For example, the movie exploits the caricature of the macho, ignorant, violent, racist, sexist, wife-beating cracker (Keanu Reeves) as a red herring. Meanwhile, the gas station attendant (Giovanni Ribisi) embodies the slightly scary, sickly, but well-meaning mentally disabled Southern character I call Re-Boo, tracing his origins to Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird(1964) but who reappeared triumphant in Sling Blade (1996) (see Graham 161-65; 185). Thanks to the campy and scary sensibilities of director Sam Raimi and the excellent work of Cate Blanchett, The Gift isn’t a mere rehashing of Southern horror clichés, but it does depend on them and our already existing knowledge of them for much of its meaning. Although we are compelled as always to hate the redneck, we also must resist scapegoating him lest the real villain, a privileged white man, for a nice change, go unpunished.