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  • “A Spirit-filled Union”: Northern Complicity in Southern Mythology in Junebug (2005)
  • William Underland

A longstanding tension exists in Hollywood’s depictions of the South, a tension between context and content, between production and plot. Through its technological and formal innovations, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), for instance, helped develop the very language and business of cinema, as directors Kevin Brownlow and David Gill vividly demonstrate in their 1980 series Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film, and yet the film notoriously casts the Ku Klux Klan as national heroes. Griffith’s film inaugurated a deep interaction between southern racism and the northern distribution of its iconography, reaching the White House screening room to the acclaim of Woodrow Wilson. That level of political and economic interaction has led Ed Guerrero to locate “the original hegemonic impulse” (10) of film itself in Griffith’s ethically compromised “masterpiece.” With its enormous capital and extensive lines of national and international distribution, Hollywood quickly became a political and social heavyweight. But the film’s enthusiastic reception was hardly uniform. Brownlow and Gill chronicle how demonstrators against the film’s repugnant propaganda “saw the film as renewing all the old fears and hatred” of black slaves. And, of course, the fears were justified: “Soon after The Birth of a Nation was released, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn” (Hollywood).

To label this well-known fact, and other such consequences of films like it, an equally well-understood result of southern racism, however, erases the complicity of the industry as a whole—erases the massive machinery of film production and distribution from view, to focus myopically on the obviously contemptible characterizations and plot lines that cast black citizens as demons to be exorcised by gallant knights in white.

The Birth of a Nation, with its relatively direct dramatization of southern racism, is merely one example of a more general tension between symbolic identities of the US South and North, as the US South

came to be constructed by the North as ‘dangerous territory—a kind of national ‘id’ (to state the case too strongly). With its libidinal connotations of commerce, blackness, the body—commerce in black bodies—the South must be repressed to achieve the ‘coherence’ (Miller viii) of a disembodied spiritual, New England Puritan theology, the stable ego of the Americas.

(Ladd qtd in Smith and Cohn 12)

This Freudian paradigm situates the North, as Ladd explains elsewhere, as “the vanguard of progress” (xiii), suggesting the “super-ego.” Ethically, however, the super-ego is not the opposite of the id. It is, rather, as Freud often emphasized, the determining reflection or foil of the id. In The Ego and the Id, Freud writes, “The super-ego is…not simply a residue of the earliest object choices of the id; it also represents an energetic reaction formation against those choices” (30, emphasis added). Super-ego and id, that is, require each other, just as the “progressive North” ontologically requires the “regressive South.” The obscuring of this continuum in personal psychology, in popular culture, and in critical literatures—the tacit or explicit disavowal of the entanglement between the North and the South—constitutes a repressive othering, which scales up from the individual to the institution, and functions ideologically as an endlessly mediated gaze upon the history of colonialism in the United States. [End Page 32]

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[End Page 33]

Cinema is, more than complicit, essential to what visual culture that Nicholas Mirzoeff calls “visuality,” a term developed by Thomas Carlyle but that Mirzoeff complicates and defines critically as the process of the creation of narratives that bolster already dominant ideologies, narratives that are “not composed simply of visual perceptions in the physical sense, but are formed by a set of relations combining information, imagination, and insight into a rendition of physical and psychic space” (3). The repetition of such narratives further authorizes authority “in order to win consent as the ‘normal,’ or everyday” (2). As Kara Keeling puts it, in specific relation to film, “The realm of visibility—what can be retained from each image's appearance to an eye—is conditioned in advance by...