5 Classic Southern Movies
Television has developed a fascination with the southern half of the United States of late, with reality TV taking a special interest in hand-fishing, small town security guards and a child who goes by the unfortunate moniker of “Honey Boo Boo,” but it’s film that has the best track record of portraying southern culture. The region’s race issues, socioeconomic divide and tradition of strong familial ties have attracted filmmakers for decades with mixed results. Capturing what the south’s past was truly like, or even the current reality of its present, is no easy task, but here are five great films that come close.
Most of the films we trek out to the theaters to see are diversions at best, but there are a handful of films that truly should be seen by everyone. They tell us something about our culture or they feature performances so towering that they must be witnessed to be believed. They are edifying and inspiring, these films are the reason why people love movies. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of those films.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s release, but the film has lost none of its relevancy. It’s a film about injustice and the awakening of two young children–Scout and Jem–to the prevalent racism in their small Alabama hamlet. At the center of the story stands a true Hollywood icon, Gregory Peck, whose quietly breathtaking performance as Atticus Finch anchors the film. Atticus is rightly regarded as the most heroic figure in Hollywood history. He is a man whose heroism is grounded in human decency as he defends Tom Robinson, a black man who is falsely accused of rape, against a town that has no interest in hearing the truth.
By turns powerful, heartbreaking and moving, To Kill a Mockingbird remains the gold standard of southern films.
The Color Purple marked Steven Spielberg’s first foray into the serious, historical fare that he favors today, and while the film has been criticized for its portrayal of black men and deviations from Alice Walker’s novel, it remains one of the few films to focus on black women. The story itself is brutal and often difficult to watch, but the stunning performances from Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Margaret Avery carries the film through the overwhelming pain that permeates the characters’ lives.
It is the focus on the strong ties between the women and the way they support and protect one another that is truly remarkable. In doing so, The Color Purple sheds light on an aspect of the southern experience that is rarely ever explored on film.
In Hollywood’s early days, filmmakers had a way of idealizing the south’s past and no other film idealized it quite like Gone with the Wind. Framed by Scarlett and Rhett’s complicated love affair, Gone with the Wind takes us from the “glory days” of the old south, full of dances and abundant wealth, to the post-Civil War reconstruction era.
Gone with the Wind is over-the-top at times and deeply naive, but the epic is still as grandiose as ever, and Scarlett will forever remain the quintessential southern belle.
Steel Magnolias is widely regarded as a weepie melodrama, but it’s a terrific film about the strong ties between a close knit group of southern women. It also happens to be incredibly funny, as the women use humor to carry them through the darker moments. The naturalistic way the women bicker, gossip and crack jokes at the beauty parlor should be familiar to anyone who grew up in the south surrounded by strong, southern women.
Beneath all the melodramatic touches is a film that truly understands the ways in which women, particularly southern women, form communities to support each other through the good times and the bad.
The Coen Brothers’ southern fable may be silly at times, but its tour through the Depression-era south plays out like a folk tale that has sprung to life. It is the Odyssey by way of the old south, with a rambling spirit and a killer, bluegrass soundtrack.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? isn’t content with focusing on any one aspect of southern culture, instead it opts to touch on all of them: racism, spirituality, small town politics, economic issues, hospitality in the face of extreme agitation and the value of a post-lunch nap. At times the film borders on the episodic, but a lack of cohesion never detracts from its southern charm.
This is just a small sampling of the great southern films out there, and trust me, I’m already heartbroken over the ones I couldn’t find room for. In that spirit, I’d love to hear about your favorites that didn’t make my list in the comments!
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