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Civil War And Southern Charm: How Hollywood Takes On The South

A woman wearing earrings and a white dress looks wearily at the camera. Behind her, a mirror shows her profile.
Library of Congress
The 1920 film 'Within Our Gates' follows the story of an African American woman raising money for a school in the Deep South. It portrays issues of the Jim Crow era, the Great Migration and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan.

Some of the most popular films in our nation’s cinematic history are about the life, culture and customs of the American South. “Gone With the Wind” — the story of Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and her love life set against the backdrop of the Civil War and Reconstruction — remains one of the highest-grossing films to date. And the first film to ever be screened in the White House was the 1915 silent film “Birth of a Nation,” a film set in Civil War and Reconstruction-era South Carolina that glorifies the Ku Klux Klan. 

But despite their box office successes and large cultural footprint, these films omit crucial pieces of history, truth and nuance about the South. In this month’s Movies on the Radio, host Frank Stasio and film experts Marsha Gordon and Laura Boyes discuss how Hollywood films have shaped cultural knowledge and narratives about the region. They talk about watching films that gloss over the darker parts of Southern history, but they also explore how more contemporary films, like “Junebug” and “ATL,” resonate with viewers as true to their own experiences.

Gordon is a film professor at North Carolina State University and a public scholar at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Boyes is the film curator for the North Carolina Museum of Art and the curator of the Moviediva series at the Carolina Theater in Durham.

Southern Film: Hits and Misses

"Gone With The Wind" - MISS

Gordon: This is the idyllic plantation world where the South has been destroyed by the Civil War. That's the imagination here. … We're 80 years after the end of the Civil War, and the biggest picture of the year basically has only good things to say about life on the plantation.

Boyes: One thing that's really puzzling about it is Scarlett O'Hara has to be the least appealing heroine in many ways. She's selfish, she's mean, she's a very odd character.

"Junebug" - HIT

Gordon: It's so gentle. It's so loving about North Carolina, about the South. On the one hand, the plot is about art and being an outsider, but it's really about family and place and coming home.

Boyes: It has a breakout performance by Amy Adams that is just so adorable in this movie.

"Band of Angels" - MISS

Boyes: This is an extremely bizarre film based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren ... he was considered to be a progressive person on racial issues at the time. But this film is so mixed up with a lot of its characterizations.

Gordon: I often feel embarrassed, especially when I'm showing films to students ... this was actually considered funny. Often jokes are made in particular at the expense of African American performers. To reflect on the way that has reverberated — especially in representations of the South, with carriage drivers and maids and mammy figures, and what that means as we see it resurfacing [in] 1915, 1939 — what about when we see it now?


Gordon: The director Chris Robinson talked about the fact that he really wanted to make a film that was like “Diner” or “Do the Right Thing” … and choosing to set it in this capital of Black Southern creativity. And I think if you think about the films that came out in particular in the 90s and early 2000s, they were so often centered on Los Angeles or New York and a different set of circumstances.

Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.
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