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The South Never Plays Itself reckons with the south onscreen

No matter where you’re from, you have a perception of the American south. You may associate New Orleans with jazz and alcohol, Florida with sunshine and retirement homes, or the entire region with the all-encompassing moral reckoning surrounding the horrific history of slavery and the confederacy that still reverberates today. In addition to what is taught about the south in history books or one’s own lived experiences, much of our associations with it, inadvertently or not, also stems from the media we consume.

In The South Never Plays Itself: A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen (NewSouth Books), Ben Beard argues that the way the American south has been portrayed in film can actually teach us a lot about how we have come to think of the region as a whole.

Beard makes it abundantly clear that the south is not a monolith, and neither are the films he analyzes from over a century of cinematic history. Throughout the book, Beard takes the reader on a journey throughout the south and a variety of films that embody it, for better or for worse—period dramas, horror, movie musicals, and any genre you can muster. From the racist legacy of Hollywood’s first blockbuster film Birth of a Nation (1915), to more recent and critically acclaimed depictions of the south like Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (2016)—Beard asserts that the films of the south are just as complex as the south itself.

“The South is both a region and a thought-experiment, real and fiction at the same time,” he writes. “The South is a place and an idea.”

The South Never Plays Itself is at times a syllabus for film buffs and historians. Beard analyzes not just blockbuster hits and classic films, but also lesser known or forgotten indies that never were indoctrinated into the canon of important southern films. He also paints a thorough picture of the mechanics behind each of these films throughout history—from the changing studio system, to bits of trivia about the writers and directors who honed in on the south.

The book is also a personal reflection on Beard’s upbringing and the media that shaped him. Beard has lived in Chicago for 14 years now, but he grew up in Pensacola, Florida—something, he jokes, that he has “yet to fully recover” from. Beard oftentimes uses the films of the south to better understand his own relationship to his southern identity.

It’s clear reading The South Plays Itself that Beard has an intense love for movies. He prefaces the book, “I grew up in the South, but I was raised on movies.” Beard grew up with films of all sorts, from the works of Alfred Hitchcock to Star Wars, and had an affinity for action movies like Lethal Weapon and RoboCop. As a young person, however, he never felt a connection with movies that take place in the region where he grew up.

“Movies in the South always struck me as false, vacillating between two extremes,” he writes. These two extremes are the polarizing themes often associated with films set in the south. On one hand it’s mint juleps and aristocracy. On the other, it’s war and violence. This wasn’t indicative of the south he knew. He acknowledges that films he watched that were set in other parts of the south had an impression on him and how he perceived those areas as a kid—even if they ended up being sensationalized depictions.

The film that best represents Beard’s personal version of the south, oddly enough, is Stephen Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. While set in 2010-era Tampa and following a crew of male strippers, Magic Mike characterizes a sprawling, suburban atmosphere reminiscent of his 90s Pensacola childhood in a way that no other film has. Beard argues the films lauded in the southern canon—like William Wyler’s Jezebel and Victor Fleming’s Gone With the Wind—while culturally important texts, revel in the fantasy of the old south as paradise.

Beard has a fond love, albeit a complicated one, for the south as his home. The diversity of the south is crucial to understanding it as a nebulous entity—as is grappling with its extensive and complicated history—and films have a substantial role in telling the stories of the south in all of its facets. Throughout The South Plays Itself, Beard methodically and thoughtfully attempts to answer the question of which versions of the south are represented on screen and why—and how those versions helped establish the cultural capital of the south as we know it.

“If the Midwest can represent everywhere/nowhere, a placeless America, and the West represents adventure, pluck, and a ruthless American drive to take up more space,” Beard writes, “the South represents the dark, tormented underbrush of the American psyche: suffering and toil, racism and poverty.”   v

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