Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Places in the Heart

Places in the Heart (1984, dir. Robert Benton) is schizophrenic. The title suggests a warm, sentimental, somewhat addled encomium to the idyllic past. There is a degree of that past in the film. But it is also about the hard struggle a young wife and mother, Edna Spalding (Sally Field), must endure after her husband's unexpected death. On the night of his funeral she asks a friend to show her how to write a check—she has never written one. The next day the local banker shows up at her door to inform her about her husband's finances—he left barely half the money she will need to make the next payment on the farm. The banker is sure that Edna is incapable of understanding her plight and certainly lacking the skills required to save the farm. He advises her to sell the farm and move in with a relative. He suggests that she can farm her two children out to relatives in Oklahoma. At first she is incapable. But eventually she rises to the challenge, intent on disproving his certainty that she will not survive on her own.

The film shows the pervasive racism of the 1930s in Texas. The young black man who drunkenly and unintentionally shoots her husband, killing him, is lynched. A procession of cars drags his body through the town, stopping in front of her house long enough to ensure that she knows "justice" had been done. The Klan makes an appearance in the film as well.

But Places in the Heart also wants us to see Edna Spalding as an exception in this environment. An itinerant black man named Moze (Danny Glover) comes to her door, asking for work, and she turns him away. When she finds him chopping wood in her yard, she sends him away again, harshly, but not before he manages to steal some of her silverware. The local sheriff arrests the man and discovers the stolen silverware. In the meantime, she has had another meeting with the local banker and now understands her circumstances better than before. The sheriff brings the thief to her door with the silverware. Instead of confirming that the stolen goods are hers, she tells the sheriff that she had given the silverware to the man so he could clean them. She remembers his promise that he is an expert at growing cotton, his offer to help her, and her plan now is to take him up on that offer.

Soon after, the banker shows up at her door again with his blind brother-in-law (John Malcovich) in tow. He suggests that if she takes his brother-in-law as a border, the bank will think better of her when it comes time to consider another loan. She takes him in too.

In the course of the film, these three marginal people—the widow woman, the vagrant black man, the blind man—become allies and friends. It is certainly within the realm of possibility than such an alliance could form. There are more than a few examples of such alliances in the historical record. But they were rare exceptions. Many films about the Southern past avoid dealing with the historical reality by focusing on exceptions. This film focuses on an exceptional situation but also includes glimpses of racism and patriarchal prejudices. It shows murder, bigotry, adultery, yet in the final scene everyone—the dead and the betrayed—gather in church together to worship—this is apparently Edna's wish-fulfilling vision, the way she would want her life to be. It is also perhaps Robert Benton's way of showing (if indeed this wasn't merely a way of pandering to the audience and glossing over the negative elements) that everyone is washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

The film is more than a portrayal of Edna's struggle to save the farm. It portrays life in a small east Texas town during the Depression. We see Edna spending time with her children and with two couples to whom she is close. An adulterous affair between two of her friends provides melodramatic interest. The film shows that in the rural South of the Depression life was slow and difficult and different from what it is now, but it also shows similarities that link past and present.

In Moze, Benton gives us a positive portrayal of an African American male that both embraces and subverts racial stereotypes. Moze is itinerant. He needs a way to feed himself, to survive. He is wily, crafty, and not beyond stealing. He sees in Edna a vulnerable woman in need of assistance. So he attaches himself to her—out of self-interest at first, perhaps, but later out of loyalty to the friendship they develop. He is skilled at farming, gives good advice to Edna, and is protective of her children. The stereotype he embodies is of the virtuous black character (usually a man, sometimes a woman) who rescues white people in need—Sidney Poitier portrayed many such figures in films from the 1950s and 1960s. There is also an element here of the fond desire of some Southerners to believe that whatever one may say about the racist past there were strong bonds that held blacks and whites together.

In the end, the woman and her two new friends work together to save the farm. Moze plants and cultivates the cotton, and when it is ready for picking he talks other black folks in the area into working for Edna for a price, and he convinces her to hire them. When she takes the cotton to the gin, he makes sure that the gin owner doesn't cheat her, as of course he tries to do. She is able to make her payment to the bank. How she will make subsequent payments the film does not make clear and in fact does not even seem interested in the question.

Why during the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s did Sallie Field appear in so many Southern films—Smokey and the Bandit (1977), Norma Rae (1979), Places in the Heart (1984), Steel Magnolias (1989), Forrest Gump (1994)? She first of all looked the part of the strait-laced and conventional Southern belle—attractive, pliant, and unthreatening. Someone who by her appearance one might think could not get along on her own. But in most of these films part of the interest in her character grows out of her struggle against the type she portrays--the bride who declines to marry, the farm owner who is determined to make the bank payment, the mill worker who resents exploitative policies by management. Without wholly moving outside the convention role of Southern womanhood that her appearance and demeanor suggest, she proves herself to be resourceful, resilient, feisty, and determined. When she perseveres, she does so against a Southern male power structure. She was, in this sense, an expression of the impact of the Feminist movement on the American South and on Southern women in the 1970s and early 1980s.

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