It’s an exciting time for historians, especially as we get nearer to the opening of the film “Free State of Jones” on June 24th. Part of the excitement has been generated by the marketing of the film (including during Game 7 of the NBA Finals!), but also the real sense that the history is being told as carefully as possible through the medium of film, which doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to telling “the true story.”
Below are some links that will assist you in learning more about the story behind the film Free State of Jones.
Author and historian Victoria Bynum’s interview about Jones County, the Civil War, the Knight Company and other interesting facts about the Free State of Jones is available on Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
The New York Times calls this a “film with footnotes,” a reference to the intensive research that went into the making of the movie. Learn about the history in this extensive website that accompanies the movie.
My friend and fellow historian, Victoria Bynum talks here about The Free State of Jones, the movie that is based on her superb book. Buy the book, watch the film, and learn something new about the Civil War.
It’s been forty years since I first saw the name “Newton Knight” in the footnotes of a Civil War history textbook as I headed home for the holidays on a greyhound bus northbound from San Diego to Monterey, California. Since that moment, I have thought about, researched, written, and talked about, the meaning of Jones County, Mississippi’s insurrection to the Civil War Era that our nation still struggles to understand.
Since 1992, I’ve published numerous works on Southern Unionism, opposition to the Confederacy, and the associated Civil War themes of guerrilla networks, women’s participation in home front uprisings, collaboration across racial lines, and retaliatory violence by Confederate militia and home front vigilantes.
I recently had the pleasure to attend a preview screening of The Free State of Jones. The movie unflinchingly depicts the…
The new civil rights film Selma opened on Christmas Day and by January 9th will appear in theaters across the country. In Selma, director Ava DuVernay examines what the film’s official website describes as “the story of a movement [that] chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition. The epic march from Selma to Montgomery culminated in President Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of the most significant victories for the civil rights movement.”
As previously discussed in this blog, the American South has consistently provided Hollywood with dramatic material since the dawn of film. For much of that history, movies have romanticized the Old South and often portrayed slavery as a benevolent institution. Last year’s Best Picture winner, 12 Years a Slave, helped to right that ship by showing the brutality of slavery in all its forms.
This is not the case with Selma where DuVernay has focused her lens not only on well-known black heroes like Martin Luther King, Jr., but on the real heroes of the movement–local people whose grassroots organizing and willingness to march and subject themselves to violence resulted in changes to our nation’s laws.
Early reviews of the film are either glowing (see the NYT review) or have criticized how the film misrepresented President Lyndon B. Johnson’s role. Joseph Califano, LBJ’s top assistant for domestic affairs from 1965-1969 argues that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea and in his review of the film takes DuVernay’s version to task. DuVernay has responded with vehemence, tweeting that the suggestion that the Selma march was LBJ’s idea is “jaw dropping and offensive to SNCC, SCLC and black citizens who made it so.”
Next week I’ll be giving the annual Low Lecture, co-sponsored by the Department of History, at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The good people there made this nice poster to accompany the talk.
It seems fitting that after posting a blog about pop culture’s southern gentleman that I should talk about his counterpart, the southern belle. What follows is an edited version of an early blog I wrote for another site.
A few years ago TLC, the channel that still airs Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, brought us a show called Bama Belles. It seems unlikely that “belle” is an appellation anyone would apply to women who don camouflage to hunt or are ready to start a bar fight. Still, the conscious decision by the show’s producers to make “belles” part of the show’s title offers an opportunity to consider the evolution of the term that is now used to describe the women on this show. (Update: Bama Belles was cancelled after only a few episodes.)
“Belle” was originally applied to white women of the southern planter class and a woman who was classified as such was as much a creation of antebellum sentimental literature as she was real. During the nineteenth century, authors North and South placed her at the center of the plantation legend and idealized her as one who was as delicate as she was strong, and as feminine as she was a dominant figure of the plantation. Novelists and playwrights of the twentieth century, too, have made the southern belle central characters in their narratives. The most famous of these was Scarlett O’Hara, the protagonist in Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 epic Gone with the Wind. Scarlett, however, was more modern than her predecessors, which is one of the reasons women around the world found her appealing.
Mid-twentieth-century southern debutantes also donned the title of “belle.” No longer plantation mistresses, these belles were still members of the South’s white social elite. For its July 9, 1951 issue, Life magazine featured Charlotte, North Carolina, debutantes with the caption that they looked “as gracious as any ante-bellum belles,” a clear reference to their Old South antecedents. Being a debutante or a pageant queen has often qualified southern women as belles, and no fewer than a dozen southern contestants were crowned Miss America between the 1950 and 1980, which in its own way helped to perpetuate the image of southern women as belles. Then, in the 1980s, debutante and pageant queen came together in Delta Burke’s portrayal of Suzanne Sugarbaker on television’s Designing Women.
Over the last several years the term has been partially stripped of its “whites only” racial affiliation, illustrating how the term has evolved. Some years ago, I was having a conversation with someone who referred to the students at Bennett College (a private, historically black liberal arts college for women in Greensboro, North Carolina) as “belles.” Their student handbook is known as the “Bennett Belle Book,” their email is “Bellesmail,” and campus updates come in the form of “Belle Alerts.” Admittedly, it was the first time I had heard the term applied to black women, but it made sense given the socially elite dimensions of the term. It certainly applied to the fictional character Whitley Gilbert, an African American southern belle played by Jasmine Guy on the showA Different World (1987-1993) in a sitcom based on the fictional Hillman College. The tradition of the black southern belle continues with the most recent addition to the cast of The Real Housewives of Atlanta, attorney Phaedra Parks. She, too, is a self-proclaimed southern belle. On the one hand she is modern in her approach to “belledom,” and yet she has more traditional belle credentials, such as her participation in beauty pageants and her membership in Atlanta’s Junior League.
Some folks might be surprised that men, too, can be belles. Throughout the South they exist in the form of female impersonators. In fact, there are numerous regional pageants whose competitions are just as fierce as those held for women. I served as a guest judge for at least two such pageants in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, including one for “Miss Dixie,” and can vouch for the seriousness of the contestants to offer their best impression of the southern belle.
The one feature of the southern belle that seems to have remained consistent over time—regardless of race, class, or gender—is that it is largely a social performance.
Given that, the belle clearly tolls for anyone who’s interested in the part.
The American South has been the subject and setting for countless films over the years and many of them have been nominated for Best Picture, and more than a few have won the Oscar. And this year is no exception. Among the nominees for Best Picture are “12 Years a Slave,” most of which is set in Louisiana, and “Dallas Buyers Club,” set in Texas. (Update: 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture)
While the 1930s was known for movies set in the Old South, the first motion picture set in the region to receive an Oscar nomination was “I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” (1932) in which a wrongly-convicted James Allen (played by Paul Muni) serves time on a southern chain gang. The next southern-based film to get an Oscar nomination was “Jezebel” (1938), starring Bette Davis who won the Oscar for Best Actress. Set in Louisiana, it is one of the better films in the genre of the plantation legend, because of its stars, but it still employs African Americans in stereotypical roles. One year later, in 1939, “Gone with the Wind” (GWTW) surpassed all previous films of its kind and not only won Oscar for Best Picture, it was truly one of the first films to become a blockbuster, and its representation of the South shaped popular perceptions of the region for decades to come.
Oscar-nominated films set in the American South after GWTW include the following:
*Denotes winner of Best Picture
The Little Foxes (1941)
The Yearling (1946)
All the King’s Men (1949)*
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
The Defiant Ones (1958)
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)*
Midnight Cowboy (1969)* (included because of Jon Voight’s character Joe Buck)
The Last Picture Show (1971)
Norma Rae (1979)
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The Big Chill (1983)
Tender Mercies (1983)
A Soldier’s Story (1984)
Places in the Heart (1984)
The Color Purple (1985)
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Driving Miss Daisy (1989)*
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)*
The Green Mile (1999)
There Will Be Blood (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Blind Side (2009)
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Help (2011)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Django Unchained (2012)
12 Years a Slave (2013)*
Dallas Buyers Club
Back in 1938, German director Kurt Neumann said that the South was “one of the best subjects Hollywood has ever had for sustained interest,” adding “we are just beginning to understand the South.” At the time, Hollywood was still making films focused on the Old South. While films with a southern setting continue to draw on regional stereotypes, not all of them do. And yet even in 2014, it seems fair to conclude that Hollywood is still “just beginning to understand the South.”
This winter Atlanta, (and the South more broadly), got skewered in the media when a snowfall of just two inches snarled traffic on the interstate highways that cut through the heart of the city, causing several hundred people to abandon their cars and walk home, in some cases, for several miles. Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update covered the news story in classic SNL style by having “Atlanta resident” and storm survivor “Buford Calloway” offer a firsthand account.
The character of Buford Calloway is one in a long line of southern gentleman and a central figure in the pop culture pantheon of southern icons who make up the plantation legend. The southern gentleman, in fact, has a history in popular culture that extends well into the antebellum period. One of the earliest descriptions of the southern gentleman can be found in John Pendleton Kennedy’s book Swallow Barn (1832), who appears in the character of Frank Meriwether, a 45 year-old Virginia planter. Kennedy introduces him this way:
“Good cheer and a good temper both tell well upon him. The first has given him a comfortable full figure, and the latter certain easy, contemplative habits, that incline him to be lazy and philosophical. He has the substantial planter look that belongs to a gentleman who lives on his estate, and is not much vexed with the crosses of life.”
The southern gentleman has long been seen as an insular man who doesn’t venture far beyond his homeland (the South) or, in the case of Frank Meriwether, his estate. He is well-read and attentive to his personal appearance, but he’s not really a man’s man. He’s a tad soft, because he owns the land and doesn’t work it. You can see hints of these character traits in SNL’s Buford Calloway. He clearly doesn’t venture beyond Georgia, or even Atlanta, and lumps South Carolina in with “the North.” And, he’s a well-groomed fellow who not only doesn’t appear to engage in manual labor, he likely gets manicures.
A century after Americans were introduced to Frank Meriwether, the southern gentleman of popular culture had changed very little. He made regular appearances in films of the 1930s. He was Duncan Bedford (played by Randolph Scott) in “So Red the Rose,” Herbert Cary (played by John Boles) in “The Littlest Rebel,” and Preston Dillard (played by Henry Fonda) in “Jezebel.” More than anyone, he was Ashley Wilkes who Leslie Howard brought to life in “Gone with the Wind.” (Sorry ladies, Rhett Butler was not a gentleman.) More recently, Tom Hanks offered his interpretation in 2004’s “The Ladykillers,” a Coen Brothers remake of the 1955 film set in London, as Professor Goldthwaite Higginson Dorr.
The southern gentleman has also been used as an advertising icon, most often for the sale of Kentucky bourbon, but also beer. There’s even a southern gentleman “costume” that can be purchased for special occasions.
What’s notable, of course, is that there’s nothing modern about the southern gentleman. At least not in popular culture. He’s still a character of the Old South. He has a mustache and goatee. He probably drinks bourbon. He may even dress like he’s still wedded to the land of his ancestors.
He’s Buford Calloway. The only difference is Buford’s modern suit of clothes.
Since Pop South isn’t a paying gig, I don’t always post items as quickly as I’d like. I’ve got a real job that needs attending to, which means that I’m a little slow to blogging about those stories that are on my mind. Like rapper Kanye West sporting a Confederate battle flag on his jacket. And, 12 Years a Slave.
Speaking of which, what a powerful film. The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, is based on true events in the life of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was captured and sold into slavery. But it is so much more. Based on Northrup’s narrative, the story itself is an amazing tale of survival. Yet the greater story is how the brutality of slavery damages the humanity of everyone associated with the system–from the slave owners to the enslaved, the slave catchers and the slave buyers, men and women. This is the institution that the Confederacy sought to preserve.
Which brings me back to Kanye and that flag. Not just any ol’ Confederate flag, of which there are several, but the Confederate battle flag. Because we know Kanye enjoys a battle, especially when his ego is involved or, more importantly, his wallet. Some have called this move “genius.” He would agree. Controversy = publicity = $$$.
What I find disconcerting is how willfully ignorant West is about the flag’s meaning. His public response to using it is to say: “You know, the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way—that’s my abstract take on what I know about it… So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag! It’s my flag! Now what are you going to do?” Yea, Kanye, it represented slavery “in a way,” and it’s also been co-opted by the Ku Klux Klan, segregationists, and Neo-Nazis. In essence, you’ve cast your lot with them, too.
But, wait. He doesn’t care about that. In a more recent interview he said as much. “You don’t ever know what I’m trying to do. Black people stopping other black people from getting checks. . .Don’t nobody care about the Confederate flag on that type of level.” Perhaps, but I don’t think we’re out of the (pecker)woods yet.
This brings me back to 12 Years a Slave. Kanye West needs to see this film. Over and over again. Perhaps then, he’ll get why he’s wrong about the meaning of the Confederate flag. He may never admit to it publicly, but in his heart, he will know.
Visitors who travel to Natchez, Mississippi, by way of Highway 61 will be able to see an interesting relic of roadside architecture known as Mammy’s Cupboard. While some visitors just want to stop and photograph the building, locals go there because it’s a great place to get a meat and three and a slice of banana caramel pie that by itself is worth the five-mile drive from town. For others, the building’s association with a “southern mammy” is enough for them to keep on driving.
Built in 1940, Mammy’s Cupboard originally operated as a family-owned Shell Gas station and convenience store. It was a good investment at the time. The Natchez Pilgrimage, the spring tour of the town’s antebellum mansions, had grown exponentially since it began in 1932. Tourism to the town exploded following the enormous success of Gone with the Wind, which premiered in 1939. Many Americans who saw the film later went in search of houses like Tara;Natchez offered them that and more.
Today, the gas pumps at Mammy’s have been closed off, but it remains a family-owned restaurant that is primarily open for lunch.
White tourists, of course, were drawn to the Natchez mammy from the beginning. By 1940, Aunt Jemima–a marketing figure based on a southern mammy–was already the most recognizable advertising icon in the country. She reminded whites that this kind of happy servitude was still within reach. For African Americans, mammy icons were a reminder of their second-class status.
Former Howard University Professor Sterling Brown wrote about the figure while traveling through the region in the early 1940s. In A Negro Looks at the South, he observed:
“Outside of Natchez, as a come-on for tourists, is the Mammy Gas Station and Barbecue Stand. With clean-cut features, a trim waist, and an elegant hoopskirt, a tall erect statue of a Mammy stands there, fronting the highway so proudly that her bandana seems out of place. My host explained why: the yarn goes that she was intended to be a Southern belle, but when the bodice was poured, the bust filled past all planning. Natchez objected to the breasts being so pendulous, and the statue’s complexion was colored to a deep chocolate. Hoopskirt and waist and features still belong to the belle, but it is a colored girl, Egyptian-like, who welcomes the tourists to Natchez and invites the white natives to barbecue.”
In the more than seventy years that Mammy’s has been open, her skin tone has grown lighter in appearance–more white than black. She was still rather dark in the early 1990s, but has since become very fair–perhaps a tacit acknowledgement by the owners that the dark skin was at best inappropriate, and worse, an offensive reminder of the not-too-distant past.
Yet if you were to stop by Mammy’s Cupboard today, you’d still be able to get a postcard of the restaurant from the days when she was still dark. It’s a small reminder of William Faulkner‘s oft-quoted line from Requiem for a Nun. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”