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-gone-with-the-wind-4368646-1024-768
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.”

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Kanye West, Neo-Confederate, and 12 Years a Slave

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.

From the film, 12 Years a Slave
From the film, 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 = $$$.

Kanye West, Neo-Confederate
Kanye West, Neo-Confederate

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.