From The Birth of a Nation (1915) to Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), filmmakers have always been drawn to the atmosphere and the iconography of the Deep South. The states that form the bedrock of the region – South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana – were some of the first to be admitted to the Union and so have acquired a fascination that is specifically American. Deep South films confront issues of discovery, race and segregation, freedom, home, violence and destiny – themes that are mapped on a landscape that is by turns fetid and transcendental, isolating and regenerative.
Perhaps more than any other region on screen, the Deep South has been the subject of some fatuous caricatures and malicious stereotypes. Its reputation as traditional and conservative – which goes as far back as its secessionist past – has often been presented as a kind of backwardness, all rednecks and buckteeth, hookworm and trailer-trash. But most filmmakers are drawn to the Deep South for its epic stories and historical specificity.
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Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
There has been no greater achievement in this regard than Gone with the Wind (1939), rereleased in a new 4K digital restoration next week. Set in 19th-century Georgia, producer David O. Selznick’s celebrated epic is a timeless cinematic monument of the Deep South: a tragic and romantic vision of the changes brought about by the American Civil War. The region’s spirit is embodied in Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable as resilient Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara and elegant gentleman Rhett Butler.
Cinematic soul food rarely comes on a bigger plate than with Gone with the Wind, but here are 10 side orders that also capture the sweat and sweep of the South.
A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)
Director Elia Kazan
The reverberations of hothouse melodrama A Streetcar Named Desire can still be felt today – with homages in The Simpsons, Seinfeld and, recently, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine (2013) – but most importantly it led to a seismic shift in the portrayal of sex and violence on the American screen. In transferring Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play from Broadway, director Elia Kazan fought the Hollywood Production Code to retain the precedent-setting rape scene, but was obliged to accede to a morally redemptive ending.
Set in a squalid, claustrophobic New Orleans tenement, Vivien Leigh gives an Oscar-winning performance as fading Southern belle Blanche, who is forced to move in with her sister Stella (Kim Hunter) and her boorish husband Stanley (Marlon Brando). Although Leigh and Brando were from different schools of acting – Leigh was trained in the British theatre, Brando was firmly entrenched in the Method – both reach the extremes of emotion in one of cinema’s great ensemble pieces.
Carmen Jones (1954)
Director Otto Preminger
Otto Preminger’s admirably liberal, all-black production of George Bizet’s 19th-century opera Carmen showcases the talents of African-American actors who were denied opportunities in Hollywood at the time. Dorothy Dandridge became the first African-American woman to be nominated for best actress for her performance as the sultry and sensual title character, prowling with a feline’s predatory grace around lovestruck fly-boy Harry Belafonte.
Although it starts in North Carolina and finishes in Chicago, the most memorable song and dance numbers take place in Louisiana. Written by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein II, ‘Stand Up and Fight’ and ‘Beat Out That Rhythm of the Drum’ pulsate with a gaudy passion and rhythmic intensity that matches the vibrant production design and sparkling Technicolor photography.
The Long, Hot Summer (1958)
Director Martin Ritt
If there is a star of the Deep South, it has to be Paul Newman. ‘Blue Eyes’ first came to prominence in Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer, an adaptation of three short stories by William Faulkner – one of the great Deep South writers. He followed this with two Tennessee Williams adaptations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), and two more films directed by Ritt, Hud (1963) and Hombre (1967). No other actor – not even Brando – has made sweat so alluring or been able to handle the pressure-cooker atmosphere with such an appropriately judged mixture of bravura and restraint.
Newman plays roughneck and suspected barn burner Ben Quick, who swaggers into the Mississippi town of Frenchman’s Bend and soon makes an unlikely match for schoolteacher Clara (Joanne Woodward), wholesome daughter of local magnate Varner (Orson Welles). Shot in breathtaking CinemaScope through the steamed-up lenses of Joseph LaShelle, the temperature is cranked up by some bawdy verbal sparring from Newman and Woodward, who went on to marry after the shoot.
The Fugitive Kind (1960)
Director Sidney Lumet
The second Marlon Brando and Tennessee Williams collaboration on this list. Passions are put to simmer rather than boil (as in A Streetcar Named Desire) in Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Orpheus Descending. Brando plays a snakeskin-clad, guitar-playing drifter who flees New Orleans and finds work in a small-town Louisiana five-and-dime run by Anna Magnani (winner of the Oscar for best actress in 1955 for another Williams Deep South melodrama, The Rose Tattoo).
Although Lumet’s best films are often those set in New York, in The Fugitive Kind he is grimly and relentlessly attuned to the sweaty and noxious climate of the Deep South. At once a natural locale in keeping with Lumet’s realist background and an expressionist setting to appease the fantasist Williams, the haunting temptations of the characters’ inner worlds become attached to the landscape with countless erotically-charged close-ups, obsessively lurid lighting cues and graceful tracking shots.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Director Norman Jewison
The festering backwater of racial prejudice stagnant in so many places in America in 1967, not only in the Deep South, is neurotically isolated in a ramshackle small town in Mississippi in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night. Streetwise Philadelphia homicide detective Sidney Poitier is forced to team up with bigoted sheriff Rod Steiger to solve a murder and, thematically, the wider problems of America’s race relations.
Although filmed in Illinois at Poitier’s request, Jewison created a greasy, dishevelled atmosphere of murmuring discontent that reflected the uncertain mood of the time, as the Civil Rights movement took hold. Winner of five Oscars – including best picture, and best actor for Steiger – the Academy were won over by its noble liberal rhetoric and the morally vexatious chemistry of Poitier and Steiger.
Director John Boorman
Adapted from James Dickey’s novel, John Boorman’s Deliverance did nothing for outsiders’ perceptions of the Deep South, particularly Appalachia, presenting the locals as bucktoothed, incestuous hillbillies. But this man-versus-nature river odyssey about four city businessmen – led by Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds – who try to recapture America’s frontier spirit far exceeds its “squeal like a piggy”/’Dueling Banjos’ reputation.
Filmed on the Chattooga river, the placidity of the water and verdant surroundings of the woods – captured immaculately in wide frames by cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond – turn out to lead to murder and violation, rather than mystical regeneration. With Deliverance, Boorman – who was awarded a 2013 BFI Fellowship – made one of the great films about masculinity in the wilderness.
Down by Law (1986)
Director Jim Jarmusch
One of the main themes of Deep South stories – and a defining characteristic of so many films on this list – is the notion of strangers or outsiders trespassing on a preserved and treasured way of Southern life. Jim Jarmusch, in the spirit of a true maverick, was quick to undo these associations in his third film, fairytale amalgam of prison thriller, neo-noir and offbeat comedy, Down by Law.
Pitting three strangers together in a New Orleans prison cell – a small-time pimp (John Lurie), an unemployed disc jockey (Tom Waits) and an ebullient Italian tourist (Roberto Benigni) – they soon escape into the portentous surroundings of the Louisiana bayou, sharply photographed in black and white by cinematographer Robby Müller. Having never seen the bayou country before filming, Müller and Jarmusch bring outsiders’ eyes to the swampy backwaters, where the characters are hopelessly adrift and somehow isolated in their landscape, each in their own special way.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Director Jonathan Lynn
In the grand scheme of Deep South courtroom dramas, My Cousin Vinny might seem like a minor addition to a canon which includes Inherit the Wind (1960), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and A Time to Kill (1996). But this inventive and well played comedy, while never set up to tackle the weighty themes of its predecessors, is just about as much fun as any Hollywood farce, with affection for both the southern and northern factions.
Joe Pesci is at his most charming as a hapless Brooklyn lawyer, who arrives in Alabama with his fiancée, sharp-tongued mechanic Marisa Tomei (in an Oscar-winning performance), to defend his cousin who has been wrongly accused of murder. Director Jonathan Lynn – a Cambridge Law graduate – comes into his own in the courtroom scenes, which are not only riotously funny, but make an unlikely claim to be some of the most realistic put on film.
Director David Gordon Green
Few directors have captured the poetics and the mythology of the Deep South like David Gordon Green. His first two films, George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), while not true Deep South films (they are both set in North Carolina), show an attention to nature and rural imagination that he uprooted to Georgia in Undertow. As with the films of Terrence Malick – who serves as a producer here – our intoxication with the decaying Southern landscape connects deeply with the characters’ souls.
Brothers Chris (Jamie Bell) and Tim (Devon Alan) live by the labour of their hands on a shabby farmstead until their sinister Uncle (Josh Lucas) turns up, convinced their widowed father (Dermot Mulroney) is hiding some semi-mythic gold coins. Blending realism and surrealism, Green and his regular cinematographer Tim Orr map this picaresque plot on a rusty, sun-refracted Deep South, enriched by rough-edged handheld camerawork and location sound.
Director Lance Hammer
The lugubrious watercolour skies of the Mississippi Delta evoke a coarse and forlorn atmosphere in debut writer-director Lance Hammer’s hardscrabble study of anger and redemption. The suicide of one African-American twin triggers a triangular narrative around his depressed brother, his grief-stricken wife and troubled 12-year-old son. Shot on a low-budget with non-professional Delta residents, this is the most dignified dramatisation of black poverty in America since Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977).
The characters’ hopes and dreams are sketched out on to the landscape, barren tableaux awash with the sounds of wintertime Delta: the cracks of stillness, empty gusts of wind, boots crunching on snow. So often the Deep South is the richest of settings, with signs and portents everywhere, but in Ballast it takes on a new sparse and ambiguous beauty.