The south of the United States is known for its charm, and more prevalently for the large population of working-class people which comprise it. Often times, especially in contemporary media, the South is reduced to the conservative political affiliation of its populace, with the region being largely summed up by the term “red states”. This reductive referencing has changed the way people across the country and the globe think of the area, writing the southern states, and their populations, off as “red neck”, ignorant, or otherwise undeserving of attention.
This collection of films, all of which are set in the south, serves to break down the culture of the Southern states through an analysis of their filmic representations. For those who love the South, miss the South, or want to one day experience the South, these will help show the ways in which the South United States are more than their designated color on a political map.
Beasts of a Southern Wild is a film set in rural Louisiana and tells the tale of a young girl and her father navigating their way through their community in apocalyptic times. A large storm surge threatens to destroy everything that the young protagonist, Hushpuppy, knows of her bayou-based community called Bathtub. After the storm hits, the town’s fresh water supply is destroyed by the consequential salt water surge and its members have to resort to destroying a nearby levee in order to save themselves. Hushpuppy goes on a fantastical journey in search of her mother, and the narrative reads much like a small odyssey.
Similarly, Big Fish follows a congruent style of story arc and is set in the neighboring state of Alabama. On his death bed, Edward Bloom tells his son and his son’s wife the fascinating summation of his life story. His adventures include stumbling upon a hidden utopia of a town called Spectre, joining a circus, and fighting in the Korean War. In the present, Edward’s son Will is skeptical of the validity of these large tales and makes it his mission to travel to and find the town of Spectre. Will makes it there successfully, realizing, with astonishment, the truth behind his father’s legends. It is Edward’s dying wish that Will is able to realize the importance of storytelling, and he is able to die peacefully once he does.
And of course, setting the precedent and popularizing the idea of tall tales in film narratives, there is Forrest Gump. This 1994 drama-comedy is considered a classic by many, and for good reason. The film is truly iconic in the way it handles storytelling, as the charmingly quirky narrator explains the details of his crazy life to strangers at a bus stop. Starting off in Alabama, Forrest meets the love of his life, Jenny, at a very young age as they meet on the bus on the first day of school and instantly become best friends. As he grows up it turns out Forrest has a supernatural knack for running, and because of this, is recruited to play for the University of Alabama’s football team once he graduates high school. He then goes on to be drafted into the army, serving time in Vietnam, becoming a world champion at ping pong, then later starting a shrimping company in honor of his good friend Bubba who died in combat. The plot is punctuated by Forrest’s seemingly uncanny appearance in major events, such as meeting multiple presidents of the United States, speaking at the “March on the Pentagon”, and even partially inspiring Elvis Presley’s career.
Big Fish, Beasts of a Southern Wild, and Forrest Gump all incorporate a heartwarming method of storytelling, that includes both exaggeration and magical realism. This emphasis on the unimaginable characterizes each of these films as verging on fantasy. In this way, the charm and allure of the South can be seen- the Southern U.S. is a beautiful place that has shaped the lives of millions of people. It’s ambiance and atmosphere for many, especially those who have never been, is often times described as one of a kind, even magical. However, that’s not to say that this magical property of the South is always a funny, delightful, pleasant thing. It is to no surprise that the South also has a dark history that hinges upon oppression and violence. In order to get a fully well-rounded perspective on the South one needs to acknowledge this darkness too which, fortunately, is also visually expressed in various films.
Eve’s Bayou is a movie set in rural Louisiana and chronicles the life of a spiritually gifted family who lives there. Louis, the father, works as a doctor in their Black community and is immediately discovered by daughter and protagonist Eve to be unfaithful to his wife. This plot point is what ends up driving the rest of the film. Eve continues to investigate her father’s disloyalty as she realizes he seems to be quite friendly with a few of his female patients. Eve’s aunt and Louis’ sister Mozelle reveals to Eve that she has inherited the gift of sight, allowing her to see premonitions of the future. Once she discovers that her father has allegedly molested her older sister, Eve looks to the supernatural for help and turns to the town’s witch for help. This film is an interesting Black narrative that shines light on different aspects of Southern life, including the practice of witchcraft or voodoo, as well as marital strife. The narrative of Eve’s Bayou flows and is stylistically similar to the written tales of Toni Morrison, making it a striking and important watch.
Another darker film, that takes place in the south is Interview with the Vampire, which takes place in New Orleans. The story revolves around two male vampires named Louis and Lestat who live together in the southern city and turn a young girl into one of their own kind out of desperate hunger. This girl, Claudia, is raised as the two’s daughter and, as she grows older mentally but not physically, she grows resentful of the life that was forced upon her by her makers. Her vengeful resentment sets the plot rolling as she attempts, with Louis’ help to escape her situation and flee to Europe, where the pair subsequently find trouble.
Neither of these films displays the systematic oppression or violence that flourished in the South in a real way, but they do carry darker plots that incorporate magical realism without idealizing their own narrative. Both of these stories, just like the previous, more uplifting ones, rely on the extraordinariness of the South and the skill of storytelling that is required to communicate it. This is what is most easily gleaned from filmic representations of the Southern United States; there is some quality about these states which is undeniably inspiring, so much so that grandiose storytelling is a necessary ability when recounting time spent there. Hopefully these films give some viewers the chance to appreciate the feel of the South, beyond its political leanings and beyond their own assumptions.