Book Review--Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights 1976-2016


Southern History on Screen: Race and Rights 1976-2016
Ed. Brian M. Jack
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

For all the liberties it takes with the truth, cinema has always had a strong influence on reality. Whether it is the reflection of societal unrest or the ability to inspire movements among the people, its impact is undeniable. In a new book of essays edited by Brian M. Jack, the portrayal of the South in film and how it relates to issues such as slavery, identity, and social upheaval are weighed against the world in which these movies were released.

The ten essays cover a wide range of issues within that realm, from the public to the domestic. It is as intimate as familial relations and wide as the systems that oppress people of color. In essence, it reveals a cinematic landscape that has evolved in the way it treats race, but still has a long way to go as far as telling a well-rounded history of the South.

I was especially impressed by Caroline Schroeter’s essay which compared D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) with Nate Parker’s 2016 rebuke of the same name. She explores the way Griffith’s influential epic in some ways helped to set and reinforce damaging perceptions of black people in America, possibly including a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. When Parker filmed an essential response to the film with his telling of a slave rebellion, he made several compelling arguments, but as Schroeter notes, his neglect of female characters and denial of their own agency is problematic. At its best, the essays in the book balance history, society and the true state of social progress in this way.

This collection is a thoughtful, deep dive into the South as it is represented, and it covers a surprising breadth of topics with success. While critical assessments of the problematic aspects of classics like Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) have become a familiar part of cinematic discourse, and current releases are subject to a similar interrogation, the films of the seventies through the nineties are also ripe for new exploration. That is perhaps the greatest triumph of this collection, which digs into movies from that period like Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The Color Purple (1985) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) with an eye to the society it reflected then compared the way things are now.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.

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