Will the South Overcome the Bigotry of the Hate-Laden White Aristocrats?" asked the ads for Otto Preminger's utterly forgettable 1967 film Hurry Sundown, which was cited in one recent book as the single worst picture ever made about the South.
The answer is no _ at least as far as the mainstream of American movies over the past 30 years would have it.
There is no question that from slavery to segregation to the tragic drama of the civil rights era and beyond, the South has had much to overcome and to atone for when it comes to race.
But as another wave of films focusing on racial conflict seems to find it almost solely in the South, it is worth asking whether the experience being depicted furthers the national debate on race, or whether it entombs it in a simplistic drama out of the past of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white that says more about what we don't want to know about race than what we do.
Most recently we've had John Singleton's Rosewood about the destruction of a black town in Florida's Levy County by a white mob in 1923, Rob Reiner's Ghosts of Mississippi, about the successful effort to retry white supremecist Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 assassination of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and last summer's film of John Grisham's A Time to Kill, all racial dramas set in an overheated Southern moral landscape of murderous white bigots and selfless black victims.
Another prototype of the genre was the 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, with its usual cast of evil rednecks and the preposterous plot device of the FBI, no friend of the civil rights movement in the South, as the dogged voice of truth and justice.
The bad guys are more often hate-laden poor whites than the hate-laden white aristocrats of the Hurry Sundown ads. But rather than reflecting the reality of race in the South or the nation, such films generally reveal something far more interesting: the way the South now and in the past has become a shadow theater for national guilt onto which the nation projects its richest, darkest, most gripping racial dramas.
"We need some new tropes," said Jack Temple Kirby, a history professor at Miami University of Ohio, and the author of Media-Made Dixie, which painstakingly tracks the role of the South in the national imagination.
"We're still stuck in 1963, '64, '65, with the same story, the same cliches. I think what we're doing is making Northern white folks feel good about themselves by telling the same story over and over again about the South. There have got to be other stories about race we could tell."
Maybe it's inevitable that the South should loom so large in the racial landscape of American films. The film industry, after all, essentially began with D.W. Griffith's racist epic The Birth of a Nation and perhaps reached its apotheosis with David O. Selznick's epic Gone With the Wind.
Many of the nation's most tortured racial dramas from slavery to the civil rights era have played out in the South. And just as the contradictions of the South have produced so much of the nation's most memorable literature _ William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Robert Penn Warren, Thomas Wolfe, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, etc., etc. _ the South is fertile ground for great cinema as well.
(Lest anyone think the well has gone dry, there is Billy Bob Thornton's Sling Blade, a mesmerizing, gritty tale of a mildly retarded Southerner that has the feel of Faulkner of O'Connor updated.)
As Kirby's book points out, the depictions of the South in film have been far more than stereotyped images of racial discord. Instead, like the often-hyperbolic images of Southern life, they have generally moved back and forth from images of a sunny South of grace, peace and simple rural values (The Southerner, Places in the Heart, Forrest Gump) to a savage South of poverty, racial strife and twisted rural simpletons (Deliverance, Cape Fear, Mandingo, take your pick).
In their new book 1,001 Things Everyone Should Know About the South, John Shelton Reed and Dale Volberg Reed list the worst of the bunch like Hurry Sundown and 2,000 Maniacs, about the gruesome deaths and dismemberments of Northern tourists who wander onto a town that was wiped out by Union troops but reappears every hundred years looking for revenge.
Not too many go beyond the cliches. A good example is last summer's A Time to Kill. It is set in the present, but the moral landscape is all from the old playbook. In case anyone misses the point, apparently the film's fictional Clanton (get it, Klan-ton?), Miss., does not yet have air-conditioning, so the heartthrobs Matthew McConaughey and Ashley Judd spend the film sweating like something out of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Its first shot is of the obligatory white-trash losers tearing down a dirt road in their pickup truck with a Confederate battle flag decal on the rear window on their way to buy beer and brutalize a 10-year-old black girl. Its last is of the liberal white lawyer taking his little daughter to the house of his black client, as if such a gesture in 1996 were a startling shattering of racial taboos.
The South, like the nation, often makes a mess of race. But the fact is that of the nation's 8,000 black elected officials in 1994, two-thirds of them were in the South _ more in Mississippi than in any other state _ and that Southern blacks and whites have always had more intimate contact with each other than black and whites elsewhere.
There is something comforting, and certainly something marketable, about this notion of the South as the repository for all the nation's racial sins and morality plays, but it was never really true, and it's certainly not true now.
The South may indeed be the nation's most resonant laboratory of race, and every now and then films get it right, like the 1992 film Mississippi Masala about the romance between a refugee Indian from Uganda and a black Mississippian, or the classic Southern race relations drama To Kill a Mockingbird, which told the racial story first and best back in 1962.
Stylized racial nightmares may be comforting elsewhere in the country, but a far richer, more revealing story of race in the South is the 1996 film of Clifton Taulbert's excellent memoir, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, in which a black Mississippian reflects of the ways blacks built self-contained, nurturing communities within the harsh confines of segregation.
Racial issues in the nation and the South, for better and for worse, have changed a lot since 1962. They're more ambiguous, more vexing, more national. They affect people outside the South in a way that is much clearer now _ or should be _ than it was then.
But in films it's usually the same old simple, comforting but utterly illusory story: We have met the enemy, and it is them.