The American South at the Oscars

12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave

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.

Gone with the Wind

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)
Deliverance (1972)
Sounder (1972)
Nashville (1975)
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)*
JFK (1991)
The Prince of Tides (1991)
Forrest Gump (1994)*
The Green Mile (1999)
Ray (2004)
Capote (2005)
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.”


The Glory Foods Campaign Revisited: An issue of both race and gender

An image of “Shirley” is unavailable as are the television ads.

Recently, I wrote about the poorly-conceived marketing campaign for Glory Foods by The Brandon Agency (see: Black Domestic in a Can), a campaign that introduced a new generation to the stereotypical “black woman as mammy,” and reminds us of the Aunt Jemima of old.  If this weren’t bad enough, the campaign also works as a critique of white women’s abilities in the kitchen.  Miss White Lady, in one Glory Foods commercial, is a frustrated failure until a black woman (known as “Shirley” in radio ads and on the company’s website) shows up to save her in time to impress dinner guests.  In another commercial, Miss White Lady also fails to satisfy her bratty children.  And once again, she must be saved by the modern day mammy.

Does any of this sound familiar?  It should.  Fans of The Help will recognize in Shirley two different characters from the book.  In one commercial, Shirley is essentially Minnie who rescues the bumbling, naive, and helpless character Celia Foote who cannot cook to save her life.  In the second commercial, Shirley is something of a mix between Minnie and Abilene.  She’s sassy like Minnie, but like Abilene she also fills the role of surrogate parent–taking charge and getting the children to “eat their vegetables.”  Clearly excited about this campaign, Dan Charna, vice president of operations for Glory Foods is quoted as saying, “We hope everyone will invite Shirley into their kitchens via Glory Foods products.” (See, The Businesses Journal, April 11, 2012)

Thank goodness Dan Charna didn’t get his wish. The television campaign for Glory Foods, while it fails to understand the complex history of mammy in the kitchen, also insults white women by suggesting that they can’t cook and need help with their children.  As one woman of color suggested in a discussion of these ads on Facebook, “It serves nobody to depict a ‘hapless white woman in the kitchen’ nor a ‘buxom black cook in the kitchen.’ It’s demeaning not only to each race but to women in general.”  And from another woman of color, “There are [many] other ways you can sell Glory Foods without the maid/Jemima/mammy aspect. And I fail to believe that only white women are helpless when it comes to soul food.”

So, in sum, the campaign strikes a nerve on issues of both race and gender.  And that’s too bad, because if Glory Foods makes a good product–and I have no reason to believe it doesn’t–then why resort to southern stereotypes of both black and white women?

The Latest:  Since posting and tweeting about this ad campaign, the Brandon Agency has pulled the ads from television and YouTube, and “Shirley” no longer walks out onto the Glory Foods website to introduce herself. So, what does this mean?  Neither the agency nor the company were able to “see” what I and others saw before rolling out this new campaign, and seem caught off guard by the criticism.  To its credit, the agency is reassessing the campaign.  So, we shall see.

Black Domestic in a Can–A South Carolina Ad Agency “Helps” Glory Foods

IMPORTANT UPDATE:  After tweeting Scott Brandon of the Brandon Agency about these offensive commercials, they have been removed from YouTube.  Coincidence?  I think Pop South as well as viewer comments must have gotten their attention. (4/19/2012)

I wonder if you have seen these commercials by Glory Foods?  It’s a company out of Columbus, Ohio, that specializes in canned goods they call “Southern food with a soulful heritage.” In one, there’s a frustrated white housewife in the kitchen and she’s having trouble in preparing dinner for her guests.  What’s she going to do?  Not to worry, a black woman (known as “Shirley” on the company’s website) busts through the door to help!   As she prepares the food, a can of Glory collard greens, the white woman can relax.  Not only does she have a black woman working it out for her in her kitchen, she’s got food that already has its southern seasoning.   Even better, Shirley plans to stay hidden in the kitchen as she shouts to the white woman “Now get on out there, and take all the Glory!”

I thought this was an unfortunate commercial, until I saw a second and related commercial.  It’s the same white woman, although this time her two children are involved, shouting and banging their forks and knives on the table.  Who’s going to rescue Miss White Lady now?  You guessed it, the canned black domestic.*  She’s going to set those mouthy children straight, make sure they eat their vegetables, and guess who gets to take “all the glory?”  Miss White Lady.

I wonder what is going on here, because it looks like Glory Foods is taking its cues from The Help.  But this isn’t 1960s Jackson, Mississippi. I went to the website of the company and that’s where I discovered that this is a black-owned business with an African American CEO who has an MBA from Duke University.  So what gives?

Who is the company trying to reach with these commercials except, perhaps, all those white women who read The Help and are looking to recapture some of that for themselves? It’s certainly an interesting marketing ploy.  Perhaps that is the point. And guess what?

The Brandon Agency, a South Carolina-based advertising agency with offices in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, and even Charlotte, North Carolina are behind the TV commercials.  The agency was hired by Glory Foods back in February, which explains why these commercials have recently appeared in Charlotte.  Take a look at the agency’s website and you’ll find something very interesting–the entire leadership team is white.  That’s right.  White “originalists” (the term the agency uses to describe company leaders and probably found in the bottom of a cocktail glass) from South Carolina came up with the Glory Food campaign featuring a modern-day Aunt Jemima.

However, this shouldn’t let Glory Foods off the hook.  If this company were run by whites we’d be all over it with this analogy to The Help, which is why I don’t understand why Glory Foods and The Brandon Agency aren’t being called out for perpetuating this particular southern stereotype.

Maybe not enough people have seen these commercials or realize the underlying assumption (or history) of mammy in the kitchen.  If they had, they’d be as concerned about this image of black women as I am.


What the hey, NAACP?

As I’ve written about before, I found the “history” reflected in the film “The Help” to be problematic on many levels.  I agreed with the Association of Black Women Historians in their criticism of the film’s message about black women in the era of Jim Crow. I also found Melissa Harris-Perry’s review of the film to be on point when she described it as “ahistorical and deeply troubling.” More recently, an alternate reading of “The Help” came in the form of this revised movie poster that bitingly states what many of us think about the film.

Then, what the hey is the NAACP thinking by nominating the film for Outstanding Motion Picture for one of its 2012 Image Awards? More importantly, why did they give Bryce Dallas Howard a nod for Outstanding Supporting Actress? Hilly? She’s not exactly a person of color (at least not in the tradition of these awards).  As the Washington Post stated, this is one of the most awkward nominations the organization made.  I can understand Viola Davis’ nomination for Outstanding Actress–even Melissa Harris-Perry recognized her talent.  Still, I agree with her that it’s a shame that Davis will probably win for playing a maid.  Hattie McDaniel, anyone?

As a historian, I often find myself combating popular media’s misrepresentations of the past in the classroom.  However, it is often an uphill battle and the success of films like “The Help,” make it even more difficult.  So, like my cohorts in the profession, I plod along and try to educate my students by having them read some honest-to-goodness history.  I only wish filmmakers would do the same.  It’s not as if the historical truth doesn’t make for good drama.

“What about The Help?”

For the past several weeks, I have been traveling to promote the publication of my book Dreaming of Dixie—a study that explores representations of the South in popular culture up to World War II.  Still, even after explaining the book’s time frame, I am regularly asked “What about The Help?”  (One woman, more pointedly said “You didn’t even mention The Help!). In other words, what do I think of that book and its representations of the South?  The first time it happened, it took me off guard, because I had not read it (yes, it’s true). Instead, I was prepared to discuss the impact of Gone With the Wind.   So, I punted and happily recommended Rebecca Sharpless’s fine book Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens and suggested they read it if they wanted a more historically accurate portrait. 

The thing about novels and movies that deal in history is that they so often get it wrong.  Gone With the Wind was a good story, and so is The Help, but let’s not kid ourselves that either makes the best history.  And yet, the success of a book like The Help means that historians will have to clear up the mistakes made in both the book and the film for a long time to come. (See, for example: An Open Statement to the fans of The Help from the Association of Black Women Historians.)

Still, I was curious as to what some readers of Stockett’s novel had to say.  As I write, there are more than 4,800 reviews of the book on, the majority of which are positive.  However, there are 261 readers (none who identify as historians) who gave the book less than stellar reviews.  It is clear that they, too, are concerned—not only by historical inaccuracies, but also the ways in which the book perpetuates stereotypes, specifically through the use of dialect.  As one reader put it (and very well, I might add):

“The way she presents it, the black vernacular becomes both abhorrent and belittling, particularly in that throughout most of the novel, Stockett avoided the use of the southern white vernacular when telling the story in the voice of the two main white characters, ‘Miss’ Skeeter, and ‘Miss’ Hilly.”

This particular remark seemed all too familiar to me, as I had read a similar criticism about Gone With the Wind when it was published.  In 1944, Earl Conrad, a vocal critic of Jim Crow, referred to writers who used dialect as “neo-Confederates,” because they used it to infer inferiority.  He considered Margaret Mitchell one of the worst offenders, because while she employed black dialect she never once used the nuances of language to illustrate a white southern drawl.  That book was published in 1936.  Stockett’s book—2009.

Seven decades after the publication of Gone With the Wind, it seems that a novel set in the Jim Crow South could and should move beyond the use of dialect.  As Conrad suggested, such writing “Jim Crows” African Americans by relegating them to the status of second-class citizens.

And that’s the “what” about The Help.

Historians on ‘The Help’: Vanessa May and Rebecca Sharpless Respond

Historians on ‘The Help’: Vanessa May and Rebecca Sharpless Respond.

So many people ask me questions about The Help (both the book and the film version), that I thought it would be better to let some historians, whose research can shed light on the subject, offer you a little context. Click on the link above.  Editor, Pop South