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  • “Personal in My Memory”The South in Popular Film
  • Godfrey Cheshire (bio)

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“We have two imaginary kingdoms. One, ‘the South,’ exists primarily in song, oral traditions and folkways, native art and literature. The other, ‘Hollywood,’ creates mass-produced audiovisual entertainments for American and world audiences, and develops its own mythology.” Moviegoers at a D.C. theater, 1937, photographed by John Vachon, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

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If you’re ever inclined to doubt the importance of the South to American movies—or vice versa—consider that David Wark Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), the foundation stone upon which the whole edifice of the American movie industry is built, and itself still perhaps (depending on whose figures you believe) the most successful film ever made, is a radically atavistic epic purporting to explain the entire sweep of southern history. A key document of southern cinematic literature, it is set mainly in the South, and was directed, brilliantly, by one native southerner (from the writings of another, novelist-racialist Thomas Dixon Jr.), but was filmed in a place whose fame, at the time, was yet to come: Hollywood, California.

Thereafter, we have two imaginary kingdoms. One, “the South,” exists primarily in song, oral traditions and folkways, native art and literature. The other, “Hollywood,” creates mass-produced audiovisual entertainments for American and world audiences, and develops its own mythology. Occasionally, sometimes frequently, the two kingdoms interact, but their relations are uneasy because they are not equals. Hollywood, the colonizer, is happy to exploit the tales, myths, culture, and sometimes the great talents (see: W. Faulkner, screenwriter) of the South, but invariably imposes its own language and concerns on the southern raw material, feeling no particular obligation to “get it right.” For its part, the South nervously contemplates the resulting distortions of its self-image(s), though it will swoon (along with the rest of the world) at the appearance of a romantic, Hollywoodized South, such as that in David O. Selznick’s 1939 production of Gone With the Wind (another film with a claim to be history’s highest-grosser).

Among moviegoers, there are as many Souths as there are individual sensibilities to discern them in the theater’s darkness. Nevertheless, certain patterns become evident. For some viewers, as the essays below indicate, the films that impress derive from valued southern literary sources; here, Hollywood’s translators have presumably not distorted those sources too greatly. Two writers, on the other hand, find wonderment in films that come from pre-existing southern sources, a pop song and a best-selling novel, precisely because of the way cinema’s magic has transformed them; here, Hollywood is an unwitting agent of personal revelation. For one northern-born critic, there’s a late-dawning realization of how the movies confuse the real South and its fictional apparitions; he confesses that two Hollywood films have long made him avoid the region. And as if to prove that any “southern film” is ultimately personal, one writer names a quintessential New York-set film simply because it offers a few glimpses of Florida, a place that many southerners don’t even consider part of the South.

Finally, there’s an essay that points us toward the startling notion that, while most cinematic visions of the South from The Birth of a Nation till now have come [End Page 29] to us filtered through the aesthetic/industrial lenses of Hollywood, they don’t have to be. From the time they began appearing the 1970s, the documentaries of North Carolina-born Ross McElwee have posited and exemplified an idea of film as an equivalent of southern literature: personal, idiomatic, made from a native’s point of view, untouched by Hollywood motives or money. If many of the films discussed here belong to a past where movies in general were the property of Hollywood, it could be that McElwee’s work points toward a future in which some visions of the South can genuinely be called southern films.

  • Alice Walker on Cold Mountain
  • Alice Walker (bio)

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“I was probably...


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