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date: 21 April 2021

The Nineteenth-Century South in Filmlocked

  • Matthew Christopher HulbertMatthew Christopher HulbertHampden-Sydney College

Summary

Representations of the 19th-century South on film have been produced in America from the Silent Era to the present. These movies include some of the most critically acclaimed and influential in American cinematic history—Gone with the Wind (1939), Glory (1989), 12 Years a Slave (2013)—and have produced some of the most iconic onscreen characters—Scarlett O’Hara, Josey Wales, Uncle Remus, Django Freeman—and onscreen moments—Rhett Butler not giving a damn, Mede boiling to death in a giant cauldron—in all of American popular culture. Depictions of the 19th-century South on film have also accounted for some of American film’s most notorious offerings—see the section entitled Anti-Slavery: Blaxploitation—and some of its biggest financial disappointments, such as Raintree County (1957) or Gods and Generals (2003).

The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) set standards for how southerners and other Americans would imagine the 19th-century South and subsequent films have been responding ever since. Prior to the apex of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s, Lost Cause themes dominated at the box office. After integration, the Civil Rights Act (1964), the Voting Rights Act (1965), and the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy, movies about the 19th-century South gradually shifted toward African American and female protagonists. Films also became increasingly graphic, violent, and sexualized in the late 1960s and 1970s as the pendulum swung fully away from the moonlight and magnolia, pro-slavery narratives of Gone with the Wind. In the 1990s, Hollywood began to carve out a middle position; however, neither extreme—exemplified by The Birth of a Nation and Mandingo, respectively—ever completely disappeared.

Filmic coverage of the antebellum (1820–1860) and war years (1861–1865) dominates portrayals of the 19th-century South. These movies home in on major themes involving the legacy of slavery in America, the legacy of the Civil War, American territorial expansion, and American exceptionalism. Moreover, the South is habitually depicted as unique compared to the rest of the nation—for its hospitality, pace of living, race relations, mysteriousness, exoticism—and southerners are represented as innately more violent than their northern counterparts. Generally, the messaging of these films has been untethered from contemporary academic interpretations of the region, slavery, or the Civil War—yet their scripts and visuals have played, and continue to play, an outsized role in how Americans imagine the South and use the South to forge regional and national identities.

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