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  • Reconstructing Violence: The Southern Rape Complex in Film and Literature by Deborah E. Barker
  • Michele Curran Cornell
Reconstructing Violence: The Southern Rape Complex in Film and Literature Deborah E. Barker Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2015, 288 pages, Hardcover, $47.50, ISBN: 978-0-8071-6062-6

During the Jim Crow era, all-white juries and white vigilantes defended white supremacy by using the southern rape complex to justify violence against African American men in the name of protecting the so-called honor and purity of white women. Court-ordered executions and lynch mobs killed thousands of black men in the 19th and 20th Centuries, who were accused of raping or even flirting with white women. The southern rape complex vilified black men as rapists and threats to southern culture, and provided white men a discourse to support the actions they took to reinforce white male privilege and racial hierarchy. In Reconstructing Violence, Deborah Barker shows how variations of the southern rape complex in American film and literature racialized cinematic conceptions of violence throughout the 20th Century.

Across an introduction, six chapters, and a coda, Barker explores how six film—Birth of a Nation (1915), The Story of Temple Drake (1933), Sanctuary (1961), Touch of Evil (1958), Cape Fear (1968), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1968). —all of which were adapted from literary novels, reconstructed ideas about sexual violence and race for American audiences from the 1910s through the 1960s. Barker explains how authors, directors, and film studios influenced the process of adapting books into movies. Through this process, she distinguishes the similarities and differences between the original stories and final theatrical cuts to show how tropes of southern rape culture influenced each film's development. The films all take place in the American South during times of national crisis such as Reconstruction, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights Movement.

Barker uses D. W. Griffith's Reconstruction tale, Birth of a Nation, as a point of origin for many of the themes she discusses. She explains that Griffith's earlier Civil War films presented "troubling images" of former Confederates dealing with "cowardice and shame" after the Civil War (25). In Birth of a Nation, however, Barker argues that Griffith used southern rape culture to reconfigure "the defeated Confederate as the victorious Klansman" (26). In the film, southern men create the Ku Klux Klan to protect white women from the sexual aggression of black men and to protect southern whites from black rule when the government failed to do so. Using Birth of a Nation as a point of comparison, Barker shows how the tropes of the southern rape complex "are used across genres, in different time periods, in different stylistic modes, and with significant variations in narrative and character" (4). In the remainder of the book, Barker explores racial symbolism within other films by employing theoretical concepts such as racial coding and the "state of exception," both to be explained below.

In most of the films Barker analyzes, white actors play the cinematic rapists, but Barker argues, "a character can be encoded as one race while visually signifying another" through "such things as speech, dress, and behaviors" (74). For example, the plot of Cape Fear explores Max Cady, an ex-convict and serial rapist who stalks and attacks the family of Sam Bowden, the prosecuting attorney who convicted him. Barker asserts that filmmakers encoded Cady as black through his defiant behavior, the familiar language he uses with black workers, his casual dress, and objects "'supercharged' with primitive power," such as Cady's "ever-present cigar and rakish Panama hat" (159-160). Furthermore, the police refer to him as "boy," and attempt to use vagrancy laws—originally designed to control the movements of black men—to force Cady to leave town (161). Barker suggests that Cady's ability to outmaneuver the legal measures Bowden [End Page 84] takes to exile him, create a frightening character for white audiences because, "as a bestial, white male rapist, Cady evades the restrictions of Jim Crow segregation" (155). Likewise, in The Story of Temple Drake, the setting is the Depression Era south where Barker explains that hillbillies, gangsters...


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pp. 84-86
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