There is a somewhat dark irony to the fact that a nation named the United States of America is amongst the most inequitable and socially divided places on planet earth. In what might well be the spiritual home of the free-market, some citizens live lives of grandeur and decadence; but far more live and die in desperate poverty – derided by their wealthy counterparts along the way. In between this clear injustice and our perception of ‘reality’ though, powerful ideological constructs are at play, which excuse and distract from the mass exploitation of ordinary people. One of the most persistent, insidious, and vitriolic of these is the myth of The South.
Over the course of the 150 years since the American Civil war, Southern Americans have been the go-to group when it comes to a caricature everyone can get behind giving a good kicking. In the fallout of the war, the hillbilly character originated from Northern news writers, as a kind of primitive parallel to the ‘civilising’ process of industrialisation sweeping the country in the second half of the 1800s. The South had been left in ruin after the war, economically crippled and hit by bad harvests – and the ordinary folk there were subsequently painted as a primitive embarrassment.
At the time America’s leaders were becoming obsessed with carving out a new image in the eyes of the world, and the poor, ‘ignorant’, ‘lazy’ South didn’t fit with their ambitions to expand the market empires they thrived from. One example to sum up this frustration, featured in Rich Hall’s brilliant BBC film The Dirty South (2010), comes from The Baltimore Sun in 1912, who suggested the only two remedies to such folk were “education and extermination.” Yikes – with an attitude like that if he’d been born a century later the writer could’ve worked for Dominic Cummings!
Indeed, the ideological onslaught impoverished Southerners faced wasn’t dissimilar to that which the poorer North faces in modern Britain. It all stems from the same ideological root; the assertion used to excuse exploitation throughout history is that the wealthy should get to mock and persecute the poor, along the lines of survival of the fittest. If you aren’t successful, it’s not a systemic flaw, there’s something wrong with you – and as those fortunate enough to succeed come to dominate and own society’s modes of communication, this myth is viciously regurgitated by those mediums. From dime-store novels to Presidential campaigns, the merciless mystification of The South permeated every nook of civil society – and ‘liberal’ Hollywood is by no means the exception.
Of course this is not the only way this power relation manifests itself in film, other demographics are similarly demonised, as mainstream fiction tends to reduce concepts of solidarity, community and local identity to a negative reactionary force. As pointed out by more critical films like Promised Land (2012), the communal identities which we often rely on to survive in a world stacked against us are portrayed by the elite as holding back progress, meaning enlightened individuals must step in and replace with ideological norms of cash-fetishism, self-obsession and social-alienation. This will undoubtedly be a theme which heavily emerges in media coverage when Joe Biden inevitably manages to lose the 2020 Presidential election.
“Do fish dream?”
Mainstream cinema is littered with violent, guffawing inbreds, such as those in Easy Rider (1969), and Deliverance (1972). In each film, communities of homogenised, whiskey-soaked yokels are placed in opposition to protagonists from the ‘modern’ world. When the red-necks murder Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider, when the Cajun hunters attack the troops in Southern Comfort, or… the things that happen in Deliverance happen… it amounts to an assault on dominant norms of wealthy Northerners – industrialisation; self-serving individualism; modern capitalism – by backward, traditional collectives terrified of socio-economic changes apparently genetically beyond their comprehension. In this manner, the ‘developed’ face of America is able to define itself, by implying it is a progressive alternative to a Moonshine-chugging straw man. Every act of brutality directed at these hicks is subsequently justified as a strike for ‘civilisation’ – or rather, the ideas of society’s dominant groups.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to the rule. The criminally under-viewed/under-rated Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010) is one such low-budget parody of the demonisation of The South. The “killer rednecks” are just good-natured, compassionate human beings – wrongly blamed for a series of absurd accidents by a troop of brattish and increasingly violent rich-kids. The film plays cannily on the absurdity in assuming someone is innately brutal, and then hypocritically persecuting them to the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, German director Werner Herzog’s surreal Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009) uses post-Katrina Louisiana as wallpaper for a film about survival in amongst the debris of modern civilisation.
Horrific acts occur throughout the course of the film – but as is characterstic of Herzog’s outlook on humanity, the people involved, even the perpetrators, are never characterised as irredeemable monsters. The people here have endured extreme hardship; abandoned by profit-driven governments, they live at the mercy of nature and survive by any means necessary – drug abuse, prostitution, theft, murder. And yet they have not devolved into subhuman savages as the usual characterisation of The Southerner would suggest. They retain their collective humanity through the recurring theme of fantastical dreams – that fish can live in clouds, that a silver spoon could be pirate treasure; that life might eventually get better.
Nicolas Cage’s junkie protagonist, Lieutenant McDonagh, is the personification of these explosive internal conflicts. A man beaten and bent out of shape by cruel circumstance, the nature of his survival leading him to commit insane acts of violence but, because of the trauma in his own past, he is still able to identify with those around him by understanding the pain within a dream unrealised. In this understanding, his own humanity is retained, as the film plays on the beauty in shared aspirations amid adversity and chaos – even when they cannot be realised.
What we see from these films then, is that Southerners are not some simian race of knuckle-dragging primitives bent on the destruction of the new world. Instead, they have the same potential to dream, feel, and bring happiness or pain as everyone else. Despite the bizarre satirical surrealism of both films, they are authentic depictions not just of Southerners, but of human beings. Certainly more authentic than studio-backed pictures at any rate. Unfortunately though, films like these remain the exception.
Same old stories
The mainstream view of The South remains stuck in the 1800s. Two modern examples – August: Osage County and Dallas Buyers Club – serve to illustrate this, both serving to gratify norms of dominant ideology and distract from its short-comings through making a burlesque caricature of The South.
In August: Osage County, Meryl Streep plays the demented matriarch of a disintegrating family in Oklahoma (yes, Oklahoma is in The South, though many in the state distance themselves from that label thanks to its backward connotations – a debate worth a Google in itself). Streep’s character is not far off being one dimensional – just barely managing to fall into “two-faced” thanks to one brief moment where she comes over all misty eyed at her daughters being “all together”. The rest of the time, she is a tyrannical, mean spirited mess – and while the script attempts to draw out just how extreme poverty is the cause of her malformed state, unlike Bad Lieutenant, it does so with all the subtlety of the genesis of the orcs in Tolkein lore (for those not in the know, orcs were elves who were tortured and mutilated, turning them irredeemably evil – so apparently we shouldn’t feel too guilty when gratuitously lopping their heads off).
The film’s recurring theme is a critique of the “myth of family”, a construct which is dismissed by one character as “genetic coincidence.” Now I’m not about to defend the traditional institution of the nuclear family – most of us have outgrown that by some distance; but what’s lacking here is any kind of collective alternative to that ‘myth’. The seemingly inhuman Streep embodies this arbitrary and irrational blood tie – clinging to people she can’t stand for the sake of an abstract concept. The film’s solution to this socially forced companionship is complete atomisation – but in a cold and uncaring world, we have to cling to what little comfort we can find; and usually other people are all we really have.
The idea that any self-serving individual with enough gumption can make their personal dreams reality is nice, but almost universally impracticable under the mass exploitation of capitalism. Yet, when the family unit falls apart in August, everyone flees in a different direction, presumably now driven to go and make a ‘better’ life for themselves back in industrialised civilisation. In the end the only conclusion we are led to is “thank Christ there’s a road leading out of here. Regardless of the difficulties solitude might bring – at least it’s better than this nightmare family!”
This notion of a constructed nightmare legitimising the failures of modern “Northern” economics brings me, finally, to Dallas Buyers Club. Matthew McConaughey plays Ron Woodroof, an archetypal testosterone-fuelled, bull-riding, 10-gallon-hat-wearing, chain-smoking, backward and bigoted Texas cowboy. Suddenly, Ron’s whole world-view is shaken, as he is diagnosed HIV+, something he previously believed to be the exclusive preserve of “cocksuckers.” But here’s the crux – as those who knew him (including the former President of the Dallas Gay Alliance William Waybourn) will tell you, Woodroof was at the very least bisexual.
Whoever the real Woodroof was, he was certainly a far cry from the hooch-soaked homophobe he is portrayed as, and openly engaged in relationships with other men – something that the film-makers will have known assuming they performed the most rudimentary research. The problem is, while it would probably have enriched the character as a whole rather than portraying him as a two dimensional A to B cardboard cut-out, the narrative arc of “ignorant Southerner learns to accept others through profiteering” would have been jeopardised by that truth.
Instead then, the film lapses into a clumsy capitalist parable, where the ignorant Woodroof comes to respect gay people through the enlightening institution of the free market. The story now enshrines capitalism as a force for progress, painting over the fact life-saving drugs were inaccessible to the public thanks to the profit-driven US pharmaceutical industry and healthcare system. Instead, it is suggested the desperation this caused encouraged individuals to innovate the market, enlightening them in the process.
This is a monstrous reduction of Southern people to perpetuate capitalist norms. While in reality Ron was an ordinary bisexual Texan taking the LGBT+ community’s need for medicine into his own hands, he is depicted instead as wretchedly intolerant until he learns he can make lots of money by selling homosexuals AIDS drugs. It reduces the story to little more than a cynical free market fable, with all the sincerity of John Goodman’s spoof KFC advert; in which Colonel Sanders proclaims he “loves the gays” in order to steal their custom from Chick-fil-a, before turning to the camera to mutter gutturally, “what do I care, you’re all just a bunch o’ walkin’ money mouths anyhow…”
And that’s exactly the problem – this dehumanising geographical stereotype, the perpetuation of the South as ignorant and the North as advanced covers for the crimes of the wealthy and the powerful, while shifting blame to the poor and the downtrodden to further justify their exploitation. It’s a vicious circular myth, relevant well beyond the Mason Dixon line, and indeed beyond the borders of the United States – to everywhere where the market operates.
Summing this up, there’s a popular saying in Florida regarding this characterisation of the ‘South’ as primitive by the ‘North’, and the general demonisation of the exploited by the exploiters. “The more ‘North’ you go the more ‘Southern’ it gets.” In other words, “who are the backward ones here, really?”
This article was originally published in February 2014 by Norwich Film Festival.