Friday, May 30, 2014

Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle, by Allison Graham

Allison Graham’s Framing the South: Hollywood, Television, and Race during the Civil Rights Struggle (Johns Hopkins Press, 2001) is full of provocative, insightful comments about the media and films about the South, especially their portrayal of the Civil Rights era.  A fundamental method of this book is to show that in the end, whatever the underlying premise or trope or intent of a film might be, the work often undercuts itself. The tendency of many Southern films, argues Graham, to steer away from difficult and complex topics in favor of safer, more marketable ones means that they don’t deal directly with such issues as racism and civil rights.  The context of such discussion is primarily one of failure—failure to engage racism directly.  By trying to understand the social, cultural, and historical contexts in which films are made and sold, in which people view them, in trying to embed films in that context, Allison Graham sometimes skews matters entirely, distorting and wrenching and ultimately leaving a film unrecognizable.  She sees the tendency in Southern films since the early 1960s to satirize, criticize, and otherwise portray the Southern redneck or hillbilly as an ignorant, benighted source of racist evil as a way of avoiding the reality of the institutional racism that lies at the heart of Southern society.  This is a good insight, but as a thesis it can overpower, narrowing rather than expanding the argument.  Her discussion of Forrest Gump, which she views as an apology for Southern racism, an affirmation of the innate goodness of the Southern white man, is a case in point.  She argues that the film (and many others) takes the position that the “southern problem has never been white people; it has, it seems, always been social class” (191). To me that assertion is too simplistic, but more than that, it does not account for what the film is.  It is more than a place in a larger context, more than evidence for a thesis and a formula. 

Examples of her comments:

“In Forrest Gump, the Hollywood South finally found its Homer.  The rise, punishment, and redemption of the white man is his tale” (15).  Elsewhere she calls Gump “an Alabama idiot” (14) and describes the film as “an homage to No Time for Sergeants(191). 

One of Graham’s primary contentions (one I endorse) in Framing the South is that many films make rednecks and hillbillies the villains in the battles for civil rights.  They express racist attitudes openly, says Graham, (“they roar the hatred that his betters will only whisper,” 13).  Such films showed racism as a problem associated with the lower-class and ignorant, not as an ingrained aspect of Southern institutions (14).              

“Elvis was a black impersonator” (128). Well, yes and no.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee placed the story in the 1930s as “a memory, a fantasy tempered by an acute awareness of its remoteness from present-day urgency” (160).

Cape Fear seemed to turn the liberal politics of the moment on its head for it argued that not only was vigilante justice the correct response of upstanding white men to those who threatened their security, it was the only possible response” (163).   I’m about to re-watch both versions of Cape Fear and will keep this reading in mind.    

In both Mockingbird and Cape Fear, Graham finds that the insistence on the inherent badness of the villain-rednecks (Bob Ewell, Max Cady) is an argument that racism stems from problems of social class—the lowest white social class--rather than a problem located in the deepest structure of Southern society and life. (164).

In The Heat of the Night: “by not implicating the white power structure in the major crimes of the story and by exonerating, in effect, the legal and economic institutions of the Deep South, [Sterling] Silliphant’s screenplay managed to create a ‘social realism’ that was both politically acceptable and commercially viable” (181).  My recollection is that this film does not exonerate those institutions but instead makes clear their guilt.  Though they may not have been involved in the crime at the film’s center, they are the source of the racism and hatred that Virgil Tibbs contends with throughout the film, and that the film constantly displays.  One does not leave this film feeling good about the Mississippi town it portrays.  This film presents racism as a force deeply engrained in Southern society.       

Graham’s knowledge of films about the American South is deeply impressive.  She has seen, it seems everything, including many films not easily available.

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