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Sweet Home Alabama: Revisiting the Past to Keep Moving Forward

By Abby Ann Ramsey

We all know the classic plot that’s essentially “small town girl moves to a big city to make her seemingly impossible dreams come true,” and if you’re like me, it’s the plot that gives you a feeling of empowerment and hope. It brings the feeling of instant pride while watching Anne Hathaway’s “Andy Sachs” in The Devil Wears Prada realize her worth as a journalist and the feeling of immediate joy when watching Emma Stone’s “Mia Dolan” undoubtedly nail an audition in La La Land. It’s the plot that people tend to label “cheesy,” “predictable,” or the worst of all, a “chick flick.” Although “chick flicks” can seem to place women in a position that capitalizes on their sexuality or that boxes them into their stereotypical gender role, they can also empower and inspire them to follow their dreams, be successful, and perhaps find love along the way.

Now, what’s so intriguing about this theme in romantic comedies, or even just movies about young women following their dreams, is that their happiness often comes with a skyscraper background. Rarely do we get to see a girl be completely content with a Southern lifestyle, which as a girl in the South, has made me idealize city life over suburban life, even though I have a deep appreciation for my hometown. Even less often do we get to see a girl follow her big city dreams, get everything she thought she wanted, and then realize her original life wasn’t so bad, and that she doesn’t necessarily have to choose all of one or all of the other. 

We never see a woman admit that her ambitious decisions might have been a mistake, not because they were ambitious, but because she needs more than a career and a perfect husband to make her happy. This is where Sweet Home Alabama fills a gap, although a gap that could have been filled with a more accurate portrayal of the South, in the common thread of “chick flicks.”

Touchstone Pictures.

Within the first ten minutes of Sweet Home Alabama the audience learns that Melanie Carmichael is living large in New York City. Not only are media outlets calling her the next great fashion designer, but she just got engaged to the mayor’s son, Andrew Hennings, who of course is played by none other than Patrick Dempsey. Her name flows off the tip of everyone’s tongue so effortlessly that she begins to think she has accomplished her dreams and even that her made-up last name is truthfully her own. 

When Melanie quickly realizes that she has some loose ends to tie up in her hometown of Greeneville, Alabama, the look of disgust and shame on her face is hard to miss. After all, just before this, her openly gay fashion colleague and friend (Nathan Lee Graham) refers to her as “Miss Dixie” and says, “Seven years ago, you were this little debutant straight off the plantation, and now you’re my steel magnolia!” After a short period of time in New York, Melanie has completely detached herself from her past, saving nothing but the slightest of country accents. She has fallen into a pit of resenting Alabama and constantly making fun of the community she once called home.

To be fair to Melanie, Sweet Home Alabama’s portrayal of Greeneville, Alabama is not exactly what I’d call glamorous. Before we even see the town, Andrew asks her if her parents will hate him because he’s a yankee, to which she quickly retorts, “well that – and a Democrat.” Her resentment for home is so clear before she even gets there, and is just built upon when she arrives at the home of her soon-to-be ex-husband, Jake Perry (Josh Lucas), and he is quick to say she has turned into “some hoity-toity Yankee bitch.” At this point, viewers are crossing their fingers hoping she’ll get out of this scary town quick enough to still have Andrew awaiting her in New York. 

Josh Lucas and Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama. Touchstone Pictures.

That is until we get the first glimpse of Reese Witherspoon fully buying into Melanie Carmichael when she looks at Jake and says, “I’m not your wife, Jake. I’m just the first girl that climbed in the back of your truck. But, you’re right. I have changed. I’m not that girl anymore.” Instantly, we want to know who Melanie was. This perfect New York fashion designer obviously had a past life that she is terrified to confront because what if she hasn’t changed? What is she’s the same Melanie she was before, just in different clothes? What if she still belongs to her real name, Melanie Smooter?

From this moment forward, we witness Melanie in a power struggle. Not a power struggle with Jake, Andrew, her parents, or even the South, but a power struggle with herself. As she begs and begs Jake to sign the divorce papers so she can return “home” to New York, she begins to see Alabama for what she used to. The second she runs into an old friend played by Ethan Embry who goes by the name of Bobby Ray Carmichael (the inspiration for her new identity), her southern accent is full blown, and a smile is restored on her face. 

Soon after, however, she attempts to deny her contentment with judgment and superiority when she goes to a nearby bar filled with almost everyone in the town. As she ends a phone conversation with Andrew before walking in, the country music blares and she labels it “the sound of [her] past” while rolling her eyes. Terrified to admit that she might actually want to be there, she saunters in with her designer top and orders a martini. An old and kind friend compliments her and attempts to work up a fashion conversation, and an outraged Melanie replies that she designed the shirt herself because she is a New York fashion designer. In what seems like an attempt to at least sound friendly, but is extremely judgmental, she looks at the woman and says, “Look at you! You’ve got a baby… in a bar.” 

Everything Melanie comes across in Greeneville seems to be a problem that she thinks is her own because the South is still a major part of her identity. That night, a hard to watch, drunken Melanie outs her friend Bobby Ray as gay and when Jake tells her she thinks she’s better than everyone there she loudly insists, “I am better than them!” The audience, however, knows the truth. Melanie just wants to be better than the girl she was before – the girl who got pregnant at 18 and was ready to settle down with a high school football star. The South to her is her old self, and thinking about who she used to be terrifies her.

She wants so badly to not be like the people she left in Alabama. She wants so badly to be open-minded, hardworking, and for lack of a better word, glamorous, because she thinks the folks in Greeneville are everything but those things. What she does not realize, however, as she is blinded by what she thinks would make her happy, is that her Alabama community was actually kind and welcoming, while she had become arrogant and exclusive. 

After this night, everything changes for her. Jake signs the divorce papers, but it’s obvious she’s still looking for something else. She sticks around for a few more days and confesses her confusion to Jake, with perhaps one of her most authentic and vulnerable lines. “I’m happy in New York, Jake, but then I come down here, and it fits too.” After being so scared of her true feelings toward Alabama, as well as her true feelings toward Jake, she can finally admit that she now sees two cities as home, and neither one is necessarily better than the other. The reason this is so hard to admit is because she’s essentially admitting she was wrong about Alabama the whole time. Melanie Smooter is not the type of person to be wrong, yet she empowers herself by realizing it’s okay to make mistakes and change her mind, even if that means she’ll face judgment from one of her two worlds. 

Although many of the people in Alabama are kind and welcoming, it’s impossible to talk about this movie without discussing the blatant political issues. The comments could possibly be the views of director Andy Tennant or they could just be what he  thinks are the views of the South. A lot of times, the jokes about the confederate reenactments are, indeed, funny, and I personally laughed out loud when Patrick Dempsey showed up in Greeneville wearing a turtleneck and blazer, and Jake — unaware that this is Melanie’s fiance — assumes he’s Bobby Ray’s boyfriend. But unfortunately, it seems that this movie capitalizes on the stereotypes of the South, a tendency that is hard to watch as a Southerner. It becomes especially hard to witness when at the very end of the movie, Melanie punches the mayor of New York and woman who would have been her mother-in-law (Candice Bergen) in the face and Melanie’s dad (Fred Ward) exclaims, “Praise the Lord, the South is risen again!”

Yes, it is true that there are people in the South who might in fact want the South to “rise again.” What’s more true, though is that I think it’s safe to say there are even more people who don’t feel like the Confederacy should make another appearance. As a Southerner, it’s difficult to think that there are people whose knowledge of the South does not extend past their viewing of Sweet Home Alabama

What I do love about the movie, though, is how the character of Jake Perry strays from the Southern stereotype enough so that he is not racist, sexist, or homophobic, but not so much that he loses his identity and appreciation for his Alabama roots. Although he labels light beer “chick food” and does assume that Patrick Dempsey’s turtleneck makes him gay, he is also the first person after Melanie to welcome Bobby Ray with open arms, despite the backlash he could face. Additionally, he views Melanie as his equal and knows that he doesn’t deserve her. 

Melanie’s friend even tells her that he went to New York to win her back but quickly returned because, “He said he’d need more than an apology to win you back. He’d need to conquer the world first.” Furthermore, he respects Melanie so much that once she decides to marry Andrew, he doesn’t try to stop her, simply for the sake of her own happiness. Jake Perry works hard to make sure he is not exactly the same man he was when Melanie left, but that he still retains his cultural identity. 

Reese Witherspoon in Sweet Home Alabama. Touchstone Pictures.

Because of the issues with the movie, it might be a stretch to say that it’s a film of female empowerment. Nonetheless, just the fact that Melanie can reckon with her past and realize that she does not have to marry a handsome New York politician to be dubbed the label of “successful” is enough to warrant me saying that she is inspiring. It takes a lot for a girl who has accomplished all she has to say that she can also enjoy the simple country life with her high school sweetheart. In fact, it takes a lot for a girl to decide she wants both the city and country life, when at the beginning of the film she said, “People need a passport to come down here.” Just as Andy Sachs must admit that fashion can have as much merit as literature for some people, Melanie Smooter must admit that the South is more than just a place of close-minded people who spend their days drinking beer and driving trucks; it’s a place full of people who love her no matter how what Vogue thinks of her.

Although it might not seem like your classic feminist movie where the protagonist gets all she ever dreamed of, it essentially is that and more. Not only do Melanie’s career aspirations come true, but she also realizes that her past mistakes do not define her future. She can have the New York job, the Alabama husband, and the lifestyle of both regions. Because of her journey of reckoning with Greeneville, it’s clear that she can inspire young women to realize it’s okay to have multiple dreams, even if one seems less important than the other. It’s important to not let the conservative Southern themes in Sweet Home Alabama discount the fact that Melanie Smooter is the epitome of a modern feminist who truly can have it all.

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Best of 2019: Light From Light Digs Deep to Uncover Ghosts

Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan in Light From Light
Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan appear in Light From Light by Paul Harrill. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Light From Light is the second entry in our series of the Best Southern Movies of 2019. Last week we reviewed The Peanut Butter Falcon, and over the next couple weeks we will review two more works released in 2019 that best understand the South.

By Reid Ramsey

We’re all just carrying ghosts. Or such is the premise of Paul Harrill’s Tennessee-set paranormal investigations drama Light From Light

Shelia (Marin Ireland) is a single mom, a car rental salesperson, and a ghost hunter. She eventually admits that her understanding of the spiritual realm stems from her childhood as a prophetic dream interpreter. While her career as a paranormal expert should firmly plant Shelia into the camp of “ghosts are real,” she comes across as a grownup who stumbled into a career based on what her family members said was her gift. She is skeptical of her own talents, but has a desperate need to help people. When Richard (Jim Gaffigan) comes to her and claims to be haunted by his recently-deceased wife, Shelia knows she will do everything in her power to help him find some answers.

While Shelia carries the ghosts of her childhood, the memories of Richard’s wife and marriage completely enshroud who he is now. Scenes show Richard peacefully existing at work in the beautiful Smoky Mountains, yet he’s never able to detach from the tragedy that always looms over him. His wife died in a private plane crash in the Smokies a year earlier. She had been traveling, unbeknownst to Richard, with her lover who also died in the crash. It’s not only the tragedy of the death that will haunt Richard’s thoughts day-in and day-out, it’s the circumstances surrounding her death and the truth that he will never be able to talk to her about the affair. With this weighty tragedy, it should come as no surprise that the house they once shared together now feels haunted.

The remaining characters are Shelia’s teenage son Owen (Josh Wiggins) and his friend and love interest Lucy (Atheena Frizzell). Their relationship is only starting to bloom, but whether it lasts or not it will carry into their lives as they develop and begin to see the world outside of their high school. If even the most benign moments of these characters’ lives will follow them around like ghosts, then why do they desire experience in the first place?

It’s not a uniquely southern quality to feel haunted by a personal past, but the collective ghosts at the soul of Light From Light reflect traits that are quite southern. A region haunted by historical and present-day ghosts. Even those who don’t have ancestors from the region, feel the weight of this history. People always react differently to ghosts. Some wholly deny their existence, others try to better understand them. 

Shelia’s understanding of the supernatural doesn’t come only from a gift given to her as a child, but comes mostly from a desire to empathize with others. She may have never met Richard’s wife while she was living; but she believes that if her ghost is living in the house, she will be able to communicate with her. She can see Richard’s pain and understand his story. Shelia doesn’t have to know the person to see the complicated impact she had on him while she was living. 

Southerners should be constantly grappling with a complicated collective past. When Richard talks about his wife, it’s clear in his eyes that she brought him a tremendous amount of joy and life, even if their relationship ended in betrayal. His years with her are not worthless because of it, but he’ll spend the rest of his life reckoning with her role in his life. 

Similarly, Owen confesses to his mom that he’s not sure he should date Lucy because he doesn’t know if he’ll marry her. This fear of making the wrong decision, likely coming from the adults he sees around him, will haunt every decision Owen makes. He’ll spend a lifetime anxiously waiting to screw up as badly as those around him and his apprehension may keep him from gathering more ghosts along the way, but it will linger with him for his whole life.

Light From Light is a quiet movie. Set in East Tennessee (the greatest region on earth, sorry if this offends), Harrill spends time luxuriating in the beauty of the mountains while also allowing the landscape to reflect the pain of our characters. This juxtaposition is especially potent when Richard and Shelia hike to the location of the plane crash and spend a minute gazing at the carnage that has become integrated into the greenery. This scene, one of the film’s best, reinforces the themes of the horror that can coexist with beauty. 

In a nutshell, horror and beauty coexisting is all Light From Light is about. In the movie’s final, jaw-dropping moment it is the simple turning of a page that horrify and inspire. Turning a page. Starting the next chapter. Life isn’t at all about forgetting or rewriting the past, but it is definitely about moving on to what’s next.

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Best of 2019: The Peanut Butter Falcon Brings Hope Down South

Dakota Johnson, Shia Labeouf, and Zachary Gottsagen floating on a raft in The Peanut Butter Falcon
Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

The Peanut Butter Falcon is the first in our series of the Best Southern Movies of 2019. Over the next couple weeks we will review three more works released in 2019 that best understand the South.

By Reid Ramsey

On a raft floating down the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Tyler (Shia Labeouf) and Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) need to talk about Zak (Zachary Gottsagen). They need to say some things about Zak without him being too privy to their conversation. To achieve this, they ask him to see how long he can hold his breath underwater. Zak eagerly dunks his head underwater as they discuss. He comes up for air. “How long was that?” he asks Tyler. They ask him to try again. When he comes up for air the second time, Zak is holding a fish that he’d grabbed with his bare hand underwater. This brief sequence encapsulates both the struggle and the raucous joy of The Peanut Butter Falcon, which follows a young man with Down syndrome, Zak, who flees from the retirement home in which the state is keeping him to travel south to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler. 

Early in Zak’s journey he teams up with Tyler, a man with a dark past and in need of a change of scenery. While he and Zak may not be the most likely team, they’re headed in the same direction, and that’s enough for now. They’re later joined by Eleanor who was one of the caretakers at the facility Zak escaped from. She cares deeply for Zak and has a desire for his well-being that stretches beyond the confines of her job. The essence of their quest is to make it down to the home of the famous wrestler the Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) where he teaches a school for professional wrestlers.

As an adventure story, The Peanut Butter Falcon was crafted in the likeness of a Mark Twain novel. It’s the type of movie that takes the peril of its characters seriously, but never succumbs to the temptation to foreground that peril. The characters may be in dangerous situations, but, first and foremost, they are having the adventure of their lives. With the exception of a handful of characters, most act out of kindness toward others even if that kindness is preceded with suspicion. 

The movie itself came about from kindness too. The directors, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, met Gottsagen at a camp for disabled actors where he simply asked them to make a movie starring him so he could become a movie star. Nilson and Schwartz credit much of the success of The Peanut Butter Falcon to Gottsagen’s optimism. Onscreen he radiates this optimism with a charisma that somehow stands out among the ranks of Labeouf, Johnson, Jon Berthal, Bruce Dern, John Hawkes, and an expertly cast Haden Church. It’s always an experiment to put a debut screen actor up against an A-list cast, but here it completely pays off. Gottsagen carries an authenticity to counteract any unintentionally ironic baggage of Labeouf. Together they craft one of the most deeply-felt onscreen friendships of recent memory.

Among the many feats of The Peanut Butter Falcon, two stand out as the most significant: first, the disability representation, and second, the deep understanding of southern coastal culture. To have a character with Down syndrome actually played by an actor with Down syndrome is unfortunately uncommon, and more often than not people with Down syndrome are among cinema’s invisible class, those who are rarely included in movies to begin. But then to have a character as dimensional as Zak portrayed by an actor so deeply in tune as Gottsagen, The Peanut Butter Falcon strikes a delicate balance that never becomes overly sentimental or jokey. He’s a pitch-perfect, expertly drawn character.

On the coastline of North Carolina, the film encounters a dozen or so wonderfully authentic characters. Some are fisherman, some truckers, some forced into retirement, but all are down on their luck. Even so, most of them experience a rejuvenation from encountering Zak, Tyler, and Eleanor that gives them hope for their future. When it feels like the world has forgotten them, they’re suddenly inspired to keep going. 

Somehow, without being hokey, The Peanut Butter Falcon is a dreamer’s movie. Movies rarely make room for dreamers that are as far out as the most outer banks. This story, though, understands the South; a place where the blind see the clearest, the outwardly hopeless inspire the most hope, and the impossible can be achieved, like, say, lifting a man twice your size over your shoulders and throwing him out of a backyard wrestling ring. 

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What is Southern Sights?

By Reid Ramsey

Growing up in the Southern United States is a tricky proposition. As you grow older, more and more reckoning must be done, both with your personal history and understanding of the world and then with your regional history and understanding of the world. Traditional education is seldom the key to this reckoning. 

For example, the course of growing up in Knoxville, TN, my hometown, is especially tricky. We are a big, southern college city situated in a valley. We excuse ourselves from slavery and the Civil War, for as any white student from Knoxville can tell you: we voted against secession and were also quick to rejoin the Union. This snippet of historical arrogance continues to misinform people today, and instead of reckoning with our collective history, we cover it up, pat ourselves on the back, and most people genuinely try to “do good.” Tennessee is the volunteer state due to the overwhelming number of Tennesseeans who joined the fray during multiple calls for troops. This “volunteer spirit” is a real attribute that people in the state both suffer and benefit from. We have a strict loyalty and a need to help that harms those who are misinformed and benefits those who first seek the truth on matters. 

Tennessee is just one of several southern states (Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and most of Florida make up the rest) that share both rich yet shameful histories, as well as rich yet shameful presents. Everyone born in the South must eventually reckon with their past as a fundamental aspect of their growth. Even more so, both those with faith and without it must also reckon at some point with both the joy and pain those institutions have brought to an entire region. The South can’t be divorced from its past or from religion without serious loopholes.

Despite a rich and fraught history, southerners in fiction are typically boiled down to stereotypes, bad accents, and religiously and politically unworthy. While these depictions occasionally lean into some truths, they largely dismiss real people living in the South and the shifting diverse nature in favor of complementing the rest of the country for just how far they’ve come. For the rest of the country, the South is best thought of as having a shameful past, an ignorant present, and never as having a future. Yet without the South we wouldn’t have many great works from artists such as Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Outkast, Jeff Nichols, Dee Rees and many more. 

The purpose of Southern Sights is not necessarily to evaluate the quality of depiction of the South in every movie, yet instead to simply evaluate each movie on its own merits. Too often, just like the region itself, the movies that honestly depict the South are overlooked and dismissed. Southern Sights will look each week at a movie that is either set in the region outlined above or is somehow informed by the region. The hope of the website is that through these reviews/essays/whatever you wanna call them, we can uncover a deeper understanding of the South and the art that reflects it. In the end, I often think of the words from Atlanta native André 3000: 

“Da Souf got sum to say,” or as it is often mistranscribed, “The South got somethin’ to say.”

The only other hope for Southern Sights is that it grows more into a true depiction of the South itself. While right now it’s just a dream, I’d love the writers of the website to reflect the diversity of the region more than I can as a straight white guy from Knoxville. It is only through collective work that we can draw a truly significant picture of this huge region, so to think that my voice could encompass all of it would be deeply arrogant. So, if you want to write for the site, drop me a line at Southern.Sights20@gmail.com. This is at the moment just a passion project but it would be wonderful to grow it into something more and be able to fund not only myself but others who venture into this alongside me.

If you’ve stuck around this long, I’m excited to dive deep with a series of the Best Southern works of 2019, which will start running next week. Check back each Monday for something new.

This is going to be a fun ride. Y’all with me?

Something, Anything: Transcendentalism in Appalachia

By Crue Smith

After I attended a screening of Paul Harrill’s latest feature, Light From Light, I
jokingly told him that his film “was the marriage between Carl Dreyer and the Heartland Series.” Carl Theodor Dreyer being a renowned Danish filmmaker and a figure head of post war Transcendental filmmaking; and the Heartland Series, which was a television show that played in Knoxville, focusing on all things Appalachian, from culture to history. Though I was joking, it’s also the truth.

In the book, Transcendental Style in Film, Paul Schrader defines the style as “an actual or potential disunity between man and his environment, a growing crack in the dull surface of everyday reality (5).” Schrader goes on to say, “By delaying edits, not moving the camera, forswearing music cues, not employing coverage and heightening the mundane, transcendental style creates a sense of unease, the viewer must resolve (5-6).” After rewatching Paul Harrill’s first feature Something, Anything, it’s clear that he’s a student of the transcendental masters. His work echos Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, and Carl Theodor Dreyer. But, what sets Something, Anything apart from the work the Transcendentalist filmmakers, is Paul’s own southern Appalachian sensibility, which blend together beautifully.

Something, Anything, follows, Peggy a young real-estate agent played by
Ashley Shelton. After being pressured into marriage and starting a family, she has a miscarriage which leads her to separate from her husband, Mark, played by Bryce Johnson. The film opens with the marriage proposal. Peggy staring at an engagement ring, surrounded by her friends and family. This leads into a montage of Mark and Peggy preparing the wedding, Peggy starting her career as a real-estate agent, and the wedding reception, where her maid of honor tells her to have kids, “lots of kids.” This places an emphasis and expectation on a traditional Southern life. However, once the marriage starts to dissolves, Peggy’s thrown into loneliness and depression. During this separation period she receives a letter from her old friend, Tim, played by Linds Edwards, who has been living as a monk in monastery in Kentucky. This piques Peggy’s curiosity and thus begins her personal and spiritual journey; to find authentic love and real meaning in her life.

I’ve gotten to know Ashley Shelton and Linds Edwards. They met on the set of
Something, Anything and are now happily married. I asked them how Paul was able to bring out these minimal and subtle performances. Which Ashley responded, “Paul just said in a kind, gentle voice ‘smaller.’” In the book Note on the Cinematograph Robert Bresson argues that the actor should be less performative and more like a “Human Model.” “The thing that matters is not what they show me but what they hide from me and, above all what they do not suspect is in them (4).” Though, this is a bit controversial and I don’t think Paul was and is dead set on this ideology, he understands the importance of subtle and gentle performances.

The film doesn’t need a blow up, there are no snarling arguments, there are no exposition dumps. The most subtle action, a look or a hand gesture can has the biggest consequences. Actors show the audiences everything we need to know about the character, in the the most understated way. Peggy moving her ankle way from her husband’s caressing hand, or Tim’s impulse to place his hand over Peggy’s hand during a quiet coffee date shows the audience everything they need to know about what the characters are feeling and and what they want.

The film was shot over the course of a year and a half, in Knoxville Tennessee. Its
narrative is separated into four chapters, each representing a season. This attention to detail adds more depth to the film’s aesthetic and mood. This decision not only adds a layer of depths to the film’s aesthetic and the narrative theme of different season’s of life. Paul is able to slow things down and present the situation in the film in a subtle way. Paul ignores, for the most part, the conventional and traditional aspects of cinematic style. He holds on shots and rarely uses traditional coverage, only using a handful of shot set-ups per scene.

Much like the actor’s performances, the style is subtle focusing on the mundane, but once an action breaks the monotony, it has a powerful impact on the viewer. The film’s aesthetic is both economical and clearly voiced, focusing on what characters are feeling rather than moving the plot forward. He wants us to sit with Peggy, going through each season of her emotional journey.

I appreciate Something, Anything a little more every time I see it. Going into my
late twenties, the film means something different for me now, than it did when I saw it the first time a few years ago. It’s both a love letter to East Tennessee and a rebuke of the traditional “Southern Living” life. It’s a film informed by both Transcendental cinema, as well as Appalachian culture, giving it a unique aesthetic and voice. I was taken aback by Ashley Shelton’s opinion of Paul and the film, “ It was my first real movie and he cared. He cared about me and my performance. He cared about making a work of art.”

Schrader, Paul. Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Oakland, CA:
University of California Press, 2018.
Bresson, Robert, and Jonathan Griffin. Notes on the Cinematograph. New York: New
York Review Books, 2016.

Home Video Guide to Surviving a Pandemic

By Reid Ramsey

A few weeks back, I watched Sling Blade for the first time. The 1996 Billy Bob Thornton flick tells the story of Karl Childers, a man who has spent most of his life in a psychiatric hospital after murdering his mother and her lover when he was a child. The story begins with him telling the story of his crime right before he will be released to continue his life as a free man. Once free he wanders back to his hometown in an attempt to restart his life as an adult. 

I initially planned to discuss Sling Blade as part of a series of essays about “coming home” here on Southern Sights. The series began with Crue Smith on Walking Tall and then featured Abby Ann Ramsey on Sweet Home Alabama. My plan was to finish up this pseudo-series with the eeriest of the three: Sling Blade

On the subject of “coming home,” Sling Blade is rich. When initially released from the hospital, Karl walks back to his small Arkansas town and can barely comprehend the place. This is twofold: first, a lot has changed since he was last there, and second, he only lived there for about twelve years in physically and emotionally abusive circumstances. Suffice it to say, it’s barely a home. In fact, his instincts tell him to turn back around and head to the hospital that has been a consistent place of care for him. 

Beyond Karl’s transient situation — he goes from living in the body shop in which he works to living with Linda and Frank, a mother and son whom he has befriended — he also at one point goes back to his original home. He walks past the backyard shed in which his parents exiled him, into the house fit for a hoarder only to find his father rocking in a chair as if nothing had changed. It’s a profoundly sad moment that could be overlooked when looking back on the totality of the movie. Karl looks at his dad and says, “I’m your boy,” to which his dad replies, “I ain’t got no boy.” This moment accelerates Karl’s complete isolation from any community he’s ever known, even an abusive community. 

While my plan was initially to write on this more, I’ve found it increasingly hard to have the energy to write lately. Even as an optimist I’ve found it near-impossible to be optimistic in the face of a global pandemic. We are faced with a time in which we can accept isolation and forget about the rest, or we can be hopeful and embrace various ways in which we can connect. We’re also faced with a time in which we can bring about change and venture to help those most vulnerable.

I think movies help people. They helped me through my most isolated period of my life thus far and provided me with a connection to others in a time of desperation. And so I made a guide. I did this partly to process my own feelings, partly to force myself to write something, and partly to help anyone who may be struggling to find a way to connect in this isolating time. These aren’t all Southern movies, but I don’t really care.

I’m not naive enough to think this will help everyone, but I hope it helps a couple people. My anxiety is already subdued just from writing this out.

So all y’all take a deep breath, turn off your phones and other screens, and let’s watch some freakin’ movies.


Lexy Kolker in Freaks

For The Realist

You may be one of those people who turn to movies to see a reflection of reality. This idea is great when it’s stuff like finding Boyhood relatable or the films of Kelly Reichardt and Sean Baker eye-opening, but when a pandemic is coming, you’re the first to rewatch Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. Well, if this is you, bless your heart because I could never do it, but seriously, here’s some movies (other than Contagion) to watch:

Relaxer (2019) By Joel Potrykus

In the lead-up to Y2K Abbie (Joshua Birge) must prove his brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) wrong by not moving from the couch until he beats an unbeatable Pac-Man level. It’s the ultimate story of social isolation as Abbie essentially loses his mind as he decays and the world around him decays. It’s one of the grossest movies I’ve seen, but it’s provocative and entertaining even as he never moves from the couch.

Available on Kanopy or to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

The Happening (2008) By M. Night Shyamalan

The Happening may not be one of Shyamalan’s best movies (I’d venture to call it one of his worst), but one thing’s for sure: this story about an airborne sickness that induces its victims to kill themselves is oddly prescient at our current moment. If you didn’t relate to a group of people literally running away from infected air in 2008, you might now if you rewatch The Happening

Available to stream on Starz or rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

Freaks (2019) By Adam B. Stein & Zach Lipovsky

This deceptive premise of a young girl being held captive at home by her father quickly turns into one of the most surprising indie films in recent years. Freaks will make you wish even more for that glimpse of connection in the midst of social distancing. 

Available on Netflix.


Adam Devine, Danny McBride, and John Goodman in The Righteous Gemstones. HBO

For the Southerner

This one should be pretty obvious. I had to put in a category like this to make it more worthwhile for this site. If you aren’t familiar with Southern Sights, you can read our entire archive of essays on Southern films by going to our home page.

The Righteous Gemstones (2019), Vice Principals (2016-2017), Eastbound and Down (2009-2013) By Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and David Gordon Green

The greatest southern works of the last decade all came from the same team: the filmmakers initially behind Eastbound and Down. While these three TV shows may not depict the *most* realistic version of life down South, they depict an honest and always hilarious version of Southern life. Here, they skewer sports, public education, and religious institutions, all to great success.

Available on HBO.

Mudbound (2017) By Dee Rees

If you’re wanting to scratch the period piece itch this quarantine, Dee Rees’s Mudbound will do just that. Far from being a heartwarming, white-savior focused Southern film, Mudbound examines the complex struggles of two men returning to their hometowns after fighting in World War II. 

Available on Netflix.

Shotgun Stories (2007) By Jeff Nichols

It never hurts to watch a Jeff Nichols movie. The Arkansas-born filmmaker tells deeply personal stories of family life in the South, specifically family life complicated by feuds, religion, race, or aliens (only in Midnight Special, which is still really, really good). His debut movie, Shotgun Stories is his smallest scale and also one of his most effective. Two sides of one family at war following the death of their patriarch, a build-up that seems destined for violence, and strong performances from lesser-known actors shape Shotgun Stories into a tense but rich thriller.

Available on Hoopla.


Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot

For The Escapist

Alright, now that we’ve gotten those movies that force us to dwell on our current situation out of the way, let’s find some movies out there for those of you who need to escape from your present anxiety. This is primarily why I visit movies these days. In fact, over the last few months, I’ve set up a mini marathon for myself of gambling and mob movies, as even the bad ones have brought me a tinge of comfort lately. I’ll get to those in a bit. But for now, here are some movies that get you out of your head for 90 minutes or so.

(Just a note on some programming I’m planning for myself: There’s several Jerry Lewis movies currently on Hulu including Cinderfella, The Bellboy, and The Patsy that look entertaining.)

The Other Guys (2010) By Adam McKay

Before Adam McKay swung his pendulum farther to the side of American docu-satires such as The Big Short and Vice, he lived squarely in between complete farce and political satire, which is where his masterfully-stupid The Other Guys thrives. Teaming up Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell as disastrous, wannabe macho cops: check. Let them destroy a city as a critique of laughably incompetent government structures that fail to do what they set out to: check. Mostly, it’s just hilarious, and I guarantee the idiocy will help you escape any current anxieties for at least an hour and forty-five minutes.

Available on Netflix.

Tootsie (1982) By Sydney Pollack

Dustin Hoffman’s best performance came in this early-80s comedy. Michael Dorsey (Hoffman) is an unsuccessful actor who dresses as a woman to land a soap opera role. It may not play as well in 2020 that it did in 1982, but the idea of a man being able to land even a role meant for a woman can carry a different level of dark comedy to a more socially-aware audience. And for what it’s worth, if you came to this category, you’re trying to escape, and this laugh-a-minute comedy will help with that.

Available on Netflix.

Some Like It Hot (1959) By Billy Wilder

The best movie on this list? Definitely. The best movie on any list? Probably? If you don’t believe me, then please go watch this Marilyn Monroe vehicle focused on two musicians (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) fleeing from the mob by dressing as women and joining a touring, all-female band as they make their way to Florida. It’s truly one of the best experiences life has to offer.

Available on Amazon Prime Video.


Stephan James and Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk

For the Romantic

Maybe you’re distancing with your partner or maybe you’re by yourself. Either way, a good romantic movie is always good to lift the spirits.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) By Sharon Maguire

The story of Bridget Jones’s (Renee Zellweger) romantic and professional escapades is easily one of the most entertaining so far this century. As a bonus, you’re treated to great performances from Colin Firth and Hugh Grant as love interests. The highest of recommendations to those that have never before delighted in this movie.

Available on Amazon Prime Video and Hulu

Sweet Home Alabama (2002) By Andy Tennant

From Abby Ann Ramsey’s essay for Southern Sights:

“Instantly, we want to know who Melanie was. This perfect New York fashion designer obviously had a past life that she is terrified to confront because what if she hasn’t changed? What is she’s the same Melanie she was before, just in different clothes? What if she still belongs to her real name, Melanie Smooter?”

Available to rent or buy on Amazon and iTunes.

If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) By Barry Jenkins

One of the best films of the decade and an all-time great book adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk is the tender and tragic love story of Fonny and Tish set among the injustice of 1970s Harlem. It’s one of the most exquisitely shot films and the actors all bring life to characters that most readers of James Baldwin would’ve never thought possible.

Available on Hulu.


Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes in White Men Can’t Jump

For the Person Really Missing Sports

I get it. I watch a lot of sports. The good news is that there are tons of great sports movies to fill in the gaps. And if none of these work for you, you can probably find reruns of the one time your favorite team actually won the big game (as an Atlanta sports fan, this means completely avoiding the Falcons after January 2017 and only focusing on Atlanta United’s 2018 MLS Cup win). 

Some honorable mention sports movies to consume during the quarantine: Miracle, He Got Game, Bend It Like Beckham, Hoop Dreams, Rocky, and Space Jam.

White Men Can’t Jump (1992) By Ron Shelton

The greatest of all sports movies is this movie about two street basketball hustlers in LA. Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson star as the bickering, but well-matched teammates who hustle their way through as many outdoor courts as they can. If you enjoy this one, then check out Shelton’s other great sports movie: Bull Durham starring Kevin Costner as a minor league baseball player.

Available on Amazon and iTunes.

Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) By Peter Berg

One of my favorite dramatic TV shows, Friday Night Lights, focuses on a Texas high school football team and the surrounding town drama. The relationship dynamics over the course of five seasons should be plenty to fill at least a few weeks of quarantine. 

Available on Hulu.

Love & Basketball (2000) By Gina Prince-Bythewood

Love & Basketball tells the romantic story of two childhood friends who aspire to be professional basketball players. The movie charts their relationship as they ascend from children all the way to the professional game, as they grow apart and grow closer. It’s a warm story that also highlights the different struggles differently gendered athletes face as they attempt to make it to the same level of play.

Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes.


Honeyland

For the Person Catching Up on Last Year’s Movies

First off, if this is you, take a look at our series where we discussed the best Southern movies of 2019, starting with The Peanut Butter Falcon. Maybe life was too busy in 2019 and you wondered when you’ll ever be able to watch some of the hit movies. Maybe you just didn’t catch all the indies you’d have loved to see. Here’s three under-the-radar picks you can watch at home.

Just Mercy (2019) By Destin Daniel Cretton

This true story of a lawyer who works to free men on death row is exactly as uplifting as it sounds. There are some victories. There are some losses. Overall, though, it will inspire rage for our current system and provoke viewers to question the validity of our current justice system. As a bonus, Michael B. Jordan gives one of the most convincing performances of a courtroom lawyer as I’ve ever seen.

Available to purchase on Amazon and iTunes.

Honeyland (2019) By Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov

This Oscar-nominated documentary tells the delicate story of a beekeeper in North Macedonia who takes no more than her share of honey from the bees, watches after her mother, and attempts to keep her local ecosystem in balance. When nomadic neighbors move in and upset that ecosystem, this small story suddenly seems as large and pressing as our current global environmental crisis. It’s a large story told on a small scale, and the film is absolutely worth watching.

Available on Hulu.

Crawl (2019) By Alexandre Aja

Set in Florida, Crawl is about a young woman who ventures home during a hurricane to find her dad critically injured in his basement, trapped in by a growing population of alligators. She must fight against the rising waters and against the vicious alligators to survive the natural disaster. An absolute gem for anyone who loves thrillers.

Available to rent on Amazon and iTunes


Ben Mendelsohn and Ryan Reynolds in Mississippi Grind

For the Person Who, Like Me, Apparently Just Wants to Watch Gambling Flicks

I have no idea if it was last year’s Uncut Gems that spurred this long-running streak of watching any gambling-centric flick I can get my hands on, but it was at least around that time that this started. Here are some honorable mentions that are available to stream: the Oceans movies, The Cooler, Casino Royale, Molly’s Game, and 21.

Casino (1995) By Martin Scorsese

25 years after its release, Casino mostly has a reputation of being a second try at Goodfellas for Martin Scorsese. In reality, though, this movie starring Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, and Sharon Stone takes a lot of Scorsese’s impulses and turns them up to 11. It’s all the better for that. Even with moments of excruciating violence, Scorsese makes one of his most honest and entertaining movies. 

Available on Starz.

Rounders (1998) By John Dahl

The story of law student Mike McDermott (Matt Damon) who is swept back into the world of gambling after his old friend Worm (Ed Norton) is released from prison. Luckily for Mike, he’s pretty great at gambling. While his life crumbles around him, he sheds the fake layers he had carefully cultivated in favor of indulging his base instincts for hustling and gambling.

Available on Netflix.

Mississippi Grind (2015) By Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

In each gambler is an unimpeachable spirit, an idea that they can’t lose forever and that eventually the tide will turn in their direction. This mentality gives way to the story of Mississippi Grind which follows veteran gambler Gerry (Ben Mendlesohn) and newbie Curtis (Ryan Reynolds) as they make their way down the Mississippi searching for the ultimate score.

Available on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video

Blood On Her Name: A ‘Whydunnit’ not a ‘Whodunnit’ (INTERVIEW)

By Reid Ramsey

Early in Blood On Her Name, the audience learns of an act of violence. Unlike most mystery thriller movies, it’s fairly clear who committed the violence. Instead of obscuring this fact for the length of the movie, Blood instead spends its runtime unraveling why they did it. It’s a thrilling, tense crime story set in a small southern town and filmed outside of Atlanta. The movie stars Bethany Anne Lind and Will Patton, and it premiered at the Fantasia Film Festival in 2019.

Southern Sights had the opportunity to interview director and co-writer Matthew Pope alongside producer and co-writer Don Thompson. Blood On Her Name will be released in select U.S. theaters as well as be available on demand in the U.S. on February 28th.

Bethany Anne Lind in Blood On Her Name

Southern Sights: I wanted to start by briefly sharing a little about my site. I created Southern Sights fairly recently to remedy a problem I saw in the film criticism industry where critics don’t take Southern films very seriously or they tend to shrug them off, not engage with them, or even dismiss them in some cases. Our goal is to engage with these films in a refreshing way and from the perspective of critics from the South as well. So when I heard that y’all were releasing a movie that was described as Southern gothic horror, I was really intrigued. 

I wanted to kick things off by asking what drew you to making a movie set in a small town like the one in Blood On Her Name? What came first, the story or the setting?

Don: Well, I think the story probably came first. I’ll start out because I know your website has a bit of a Southern bend. Matt’s the resident Southerner here, I’m a coastal Los Angelino. But Matt and I wrote the thing on a farm north of Atlanta where we were both living at the time just on a little lake out there. We were trying to hack together the best story that we possibly could. I don’t think you can pull that apart from the setting, because we knew where we’d be shooting it. We knew we’d be shooting it in the rural South. It probably came mostly together. Matt, I don’t know if you have a different vision of it?

Matt: I think, you know, it’s not original advice these days to hear “work with what you’ve got” but we were obviously thinking through that lens as we wrote a few different scripts. Knowing the likely budget range we’d be working within and what we had easier access to in terms of people and locations and everything else was a part of that. That led us to developing the story, where it’s developed, and the type of setting. Obviously then you want it to work well with the story, the themes, and the characters so it was all sort of hand-in-hand. 

I don’t know if one thing really came before the other, but there was always a likelihood that we’d be shooting around the types of areas where the film is set for practical reasons if nothing else. So we made sure we had a story that made sense there and felt at home there.

Southern Sights: What drew you to the small town? Or even better, what’s your relationship with the South? I know, Don, you said you live in L.A. and Matt you’re in Atlanta, correct?

Matt: I’m about an hour North of Atlanta. Three hours in traffic.

Southern Sights: Gotcha. I’ve got family in Marietta. So probably not too far from there.

Matt: Yeah, keep going past that and you’ll eventually get to me. Yeah, I grew up in the South. I was born in Mississippi. I’ve lived in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida. It’s a place that’s always just felt like home in a way that anywhere you grow up tends to feel like home. So I spent some time in L.A. and liked a lot of things about it, but for me there’s certainly a familiarity with the kinds of people and personalities that you experience and run into here. That sort of Southern Gothic thread of narrative is something that I’ve always enjoyed so it just seemed like a natural fit for a setting for a story like this. 

Southern Sights: I think when most audiences hear Southern horror, they initially think of movies like Deliverance or some of the more famous ones. But when I watched Blood On Her Name, it reminded me a lot more of movies like Winter’s Bone and Shotgun Stories that are quieter dramas with a bit of horror running underneath. Did y’all have any specific influences you brought into making Blood On Her Name, or what are even more of your general film influences?

Don: I think you got two of them right there. 

Matt: Deliverance, right?

Don: Yeah, Deliverance was dead on.

Matt: No, I’ll say this to start. I’m not sure, but there’s a lot of press that’s out there. I don’t have any idea where most of it comes from, but horror isn’t the word Don or I have ever used to describe the film. Thriller is more in the vein. We had the really great experience of premiering the film up at Fantasia up in Montreal this past summer. With that being a genre-oriented festival, some of the initial press that picked it up does a lot in that horror realm, and it got a little bit of verbal out there. But we’d certainly agree that Jeff Nichols is someone I’d be happy to have our film compared to any day. The other films that we certainly talked about and referenced as we were going through here, I’d say, we’ve probably been compared four or five times to Blue Ruin.

Don: Which is a fantastic film, and we absolutely love the comparison. And they’re apt. We very much play in the same story world as [Jeremy] Saulnier was in that one.

Bethany Anne Lind in Blood On Her Name

Southern Sights: Absolutely. One of my favorite aspects of the film was the ambiguity. From the beginning, it’s unclear to the viewer how the accident occurs. It seemed to me to be a bit of a reversal of  the Hitchcock approach to tension, where he gives the audience information that the characters don’t have. Here the characters have information that the audience doesn’t have access to until later. What led you to that approach and is it more than a successful way to amp up the mystery?

Don: I think that was probably one of the earliest seeds of the story. The story starts with a crime event where you think you know what happens, but we’re not being explicit about what that is. I think it was the thing we thought was unique about it. So we wanted to put her into that situation and try to imagine: what would it be like if I were going through this situation? It would be an utter, chaotic mess. Somebody called it a whydunnit rather than whodunnit. And I loved that. We never said that when we were writing it, but I thought that was just a great way to describe it. 

Matt: It’s really a reaction to… well we all saw how unsuccessful Hitchcock was with his way of doing it. 

Southern Sights: Yeah, you don’t wanna do it like he did. Family seemed to be one of the most important themes of the movie. I was curious if y’all had insight into why you wanted to focus on this separated family, for those who haven’t seen it, the main character’s husband is in prison, and she’s raising her son by herself, and she’s also estranged from her father. So what led you to wanting to highlight that theme?

Matt: I think there’s a thread throughout that is certainly the family dynamics are relevant too, but I think it’s broader than that. Just the way people in this story are trying to navigate protecting the people they love and care about. Sometimes they’re family members, sometimes they’re not. Doing that in the midst of a situation where a lot of the characters are fairly isolated. There’s not a lot of connection for them to rely on. I think that is useful for putting characters into situations in which they couldn’t necessarily find easy answers or get help from the types of support systems that they might otherwise. But ultimately each of them is trying to protect the people they care about in whatever way they can figure out to, and sometimes that results in crossing moral lines that they think they wouldn’t cross or wish they hadn’t crossed. 

That’s really the common thread. Whether it’s family members or a character like Ray, who’s not related to anyone but still is a tinge of family, if you will. 

Don: I think we also like the setting and putting it in that type of family. There’s so much that feels like there’s a fraying of social institutions. Family is the last of the social institutions and to watch that fraying and how people react to that, I think it’s a powerful thing. It sets people up to make difficult choices.

Will Patton in Blood On Her Name

Southern Sights: Yes, that’s fascinating. Especially the isolation aspect. They could be in this small town and have a hard time driving down the street without seeing her father, the police office, but she still feels isolated within that.

Don: Absolutely.

Southern Sights: Could you walk me through the process of getting Blood On Her Name made? What was frustrating or harder than you expected? What was easier?

Don: Nothing was easier than expected. Everything was harder. Matt, I’ll let you take the first crack at that if you’d like.

Matt: Sure. Don and I came into the process expecting to have a fairly… we sorta knew what needed to be done to actually make the movie itself. While it was extremely difficult to do all the things that are always extremely difficult to do on low-budget films, raising the money, all of it; it wasn’t unexpected. 

I think one of the things that was frustrating, in the enormity of the challenge, was trying to get anyone at all to pay attention to the film from the earliest days. Whether it was in development or the casting or marketing and trying to get it out into the world afterwards. It’s such a saturated landscape these days and there is so much content out there. A lot of it is really good and free. So trying to figure out how to… I think you run into every conversation, every effort to get someone to pay attention to the film or your process of making it, is met by an initial assumption that they don’t want to waste time paying attention to you or your film if they don’t have good reason to. It was a huge hurdle to every step along the way just to be able to do something that actually had a chance of being seen and not just completely ignored.

Don: Piggybacking on that a little bit, there’s a bit of a challenge as well how much of the work we did out, in, and around Atlanta. Atlanta is a great production town, they’ve done a great job with their tax incentives, luring people in to make films in the area over the last decade, which is amazing. But a lot of the post-infrastructure, the sales-infrastructure, all of that is still in Los Angeles and the coast. It’s a bit difficult to get noticed in the landscape in the best of circumstances. It’s even more difficult when you pile on the fact that people tend to be about 2000 miles away from you in any direction. 

The other thing though that I did not anticipate, going into this, was just absolutely how much it rained in Atlanta. We had an unbelievable amount of rain. We shot in May. Matt, do you remember, were there like three days we didn’t have rain delays or have to pause for rain on a 25 day schedule?

Matt: I think 18 out of 23 days in principle it rained.

Don: It was insane. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I think it was one of the more rainy seasons on record so maybe that’s atypical. There were hours that we’d lose to not just rain but lightning. If you get rain, you kinda deal with it. We have a rainy film, it’s not a big deal. But when you have lightning, you’ve gotta shut down the crew, you’ve gotta find shelter, you’ve gotta wait till it passes. Dealing with that challenge on a non-studio shoot, we weren’t up in a big soundstage somewhere. We were out on location everyday.

Southern Sights: Right. You don’t necessarily have the budget to just add days.

Don: Nor the insurance to say, “Oh hey, don’t worry about it, we’ll shut down production today for an untimely weather event.”

Bethany Anne Lind in Blood On Her Name

Southern Sights: I want to ask a couple things about your crew, because I always love to hear answers about the crew because they aren’t always talked about as much. Is there one person on your crew who was particularly indispensable to this film outside of you two?

Don: Well, hey, you’re from Knoxville, right? Our DP, Matt Rogers, is from Knoxville.

Matt: Yeah and I would give him as the answer regardless of whether he happened to be in your hometown.

Don: Well, I’d be on the fence about it.

Matt: Matt was probably the first person after we decided to make the film. Matt and then Bethany, who plays Leigh. When we wanted to do this and do it well, they were the two we were confident in reaching out to first to see if they were on board. We’ve worked with both of them before and knew what we would get. We knew that it would be good. So that became the initial core of the team from the start.

Don: In terms of just like… Matt Rogers, the DP, has an incredible eye for photography, but he’s also a very practical filmmaker. When we throw something at him and are like, “Hey we don’t have any more money to throw at equipment or crew, how are we going to do this?” He figures a way to make it look stellar. So he’s definitely up there on the list of prime positions that this would not have been possible without.

Southern Sights: Fantastic. I’ve got just one more for y’all. So you are writing partners on the movie and therefore have a unique relationship in terms of creating it. I’m curious since Matt, you directed, and Don, you produced, and you obviously wear very different hats on set. Did you find yourselves fitting neatly into those roles on set, or was there more fluidity since you both had such a strong hand in writing?

Matt: I think it was a comfortable process. Since we both had co-written the script, we had a high comfort level that we were trying to make the same movie. That was really important to being able to be on set, having to make decisions quickly and move on. I think I knew that while I’m happy to get notes from anybody, if the note was coming from Don who was as often as possible by the monitor and watching the action as it was unfolding, I knew it was something to pay particular attention to because we were trying to make the same film. It was concerning if he’d raise a question like, “Is this right? Is this the vibe we need here?” I think that was an incredibly helpful aspect of the partnership, because we really did develop this story collaboratively from page one and had the benefit of feeling aligned on the story we were trying to tell.

Don: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think the other thing that I enjoyed out of it, like so many times on a film this size, producing means cat-wrangling and going desperately to find the location you’re supposed to be shooting at in 12 hours because it just fell through. Matt and I have both done a fair amount of production, so we did our very best in pre-production to solidify all of those things that tend to cause chaos. There’s a certain amount that is inherent to production, but between shooting a relatively low-number of locations and having most of those locations set-up beforehand, I got to hang out at the monitor and mostly sit back and watch things unfold. I did, though, get to jump in when I saw something going awry. I don’t know if that would be the right word, but just missing a mark that Matt and I had talked about in the scripting phase. It’s a lot easier to catch that with two eyes than it is with just one set of eyes.


Southern Sights: That makes a lot of sense. Thank you both so much for doing this. You’ve been a pleasure.

Walking Tall (1973) Carries a Big Ol Hickory Stick Back Home to Tennessee

By Crue Smith

Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall
Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser in Walking Tall

Walking Tall is the story of the legendary Tennessee lawman, Buford Pusser, who with the help of his deputies cleared McNairy County of crime and corruption with nothing but character, integrity, and a four-foot, hand-carved piece of hickory that he used to crack skulls and bash apart moonshine distilleries. The locals who knew the real Buford Pusser would tell you that even though the film is largely fictional with just a sprinkle of truth, he was in fact a larger-than-life character . Nevertheless, Walking Tall helped launch Tennessee into the cultural zeitgeist. It’s a modern American myth that became an iconic part of southern culture and staple of the state of Tennessee. 

The film was directed by Phil Karlson and stars Joe Don Baker as Buford Pusser. The plot functions like a modern day American Western. After a three year stint as a professional wrestler, Buford returns to his home town in the heart of Tennessee to live a quiet life with his wife and two kids. However, Buford realizes that the once wholesome McNairy county is now being exploited by a criminal syndicate. Therefore, Buford runs for county sheriff and starts an all-out war against the underworld, busting up gambling parlors, brothels, and moonshine distilleries with his stick of hickory. However, this comes with a hefty toll, as the more Buford puts pressure on the criminal underbelly, the more the criminals lash out, putting Buford’s family’s life in jeopardy. The main theme being, the price a man pays for keeping  and integrity. 

However, it’s important to realize that this film, though based on a true story, is mostly fictional. The film condenses pieces of Buford’s life and legacy into a tight-knit plot and obviously embellishes these aspects for maximum entertainment. Nevertheless, this is how most American myth came to be and the story stuck with viewers, turning Buford Pusser from a regional icon to American icon. 

The film was a box office smash for Paramount Pictures. Having a budget of $500,000, it made over $23 million domestically. It turned Joe Don Baker into a household name and watching his performance it’s easy to see why the audience, especially in Tennessee flipped for him. He was neither caricature or a stereotype. He felt authentic.     

Walking Tall is one of Phil Karlson’s best and most important films. It plays like an ultra violent revenge fantasy mixed with a Frank Capra film. It is as earnest and wholesome as it is brutal. Karlson started his career in the mid-forties, directing a whopping sixty one features to his name and in many ways Walking Tall reflects the values of his earlier Hollywood films while feeling somewhat contemporary for the time, fitting in with similar films like Death Wish, The Born Losers, and Dirty Harry. 

Walking Tall Poster

Karlson shot the film with a more practical, but effective style, only using a handful of camera set-ups per scene and shooting in daylight that contrasts the low key and neon lit gambling dens and brothels. A straightforward style for a film about a straightforward protagonist. However this could be looked at as a double edged sword. The aesthetic can come across as bland at times, and I have to wonder if a different director with a more personal vision had made this movie if it would have better stood the test of time.

After rewatching the film, I would say that some of its aspects do not hold up to today’s standards;  both in cinematic style and culturally. Yes, I think one could shave twenty minutes off the film, the aesthetic can come across as bland, and some of the political subject matter can feel a little too right-wing sometimes. However, I found myself enjoying this film much more than the majority of Southern crime thrillers from the last decade. What Walking Tall doesn’t do is talk down to its viewer, but instead presents the majority of the citizens of the county as good folks; maybe behind the times and susceptible to vice, but redeemable. I see the opposite today. Television and Filmmakers using the phrase “Southern Gothic” to exploit poverty and a skewed version of the Southeast as nothing but meth addicts and idiots living in shotgun shacks and trailer parks. The sky is always grey and the movies have oversaturated color correction. I have grown tired of these aesthetic conventions and subjects and I look back on a film like Walking Tall. Though it takes too many creative liberties with the narrative, I understand why it was such a big deal for people living in the southeast and Tennessee.

Best of 2019: Burning Cane Paints Louisiana with a Thoughtful Specificity

Burning Cane
Photo courtesy of Netflix Film

Burning Cane is the third in our series of the Best Southern Movies of 2019. It is available to watch on Netflix. Next week we will reveal the last work of 2019 that best understands the South.

By Reid Ramsey

“They have no right to tell me when Jojo needs to die. Only the Lord can do that,” Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers) says of her sick dog in the opening monologue of Burning Cane. She’s tried everything to save this dog from his mange. People around Helen constantly try to give her remedies: lemon juice, motor oil, honey, prayer. Nothing works and after a while Jojo has mostly given up and refuses to move more than necessary. Helen explains this whole painstaking process of care in the opening voice-over to set-up the rest of the film. Burning Cane isn’t about taking care of a dog; it’s a film about the vicious, destructive cycles in which people are trapped and the impossibility of fully ridding oneself of the mange.

Helen lives in rural Louisiana with only her dog for company at home. She attends a Southern Baptist church with the fiery, alcohol-fueled Pastor Tillman (Wendell Pierce) at the helm. Her son (Dominique McClellan), who often visits her, is an unemployed, alcoholic father who spends his days teaching his young son to drink and dance. The story is told as a series of vignettes backed by voiceover, impassioned speeches, and poetic style. 

Shot while writer and director Phillip Youmans was still in high school, Burning Cane gained quick recognition in 2019 not only for being made by such a young filmmaker, but even more so for being such a stylistically mature film made by a young filmmaker. Teenagers often desire to watch institutions they grew up with tumble (an idea from which great art can also be made), but Youmans approaches Southern Baptist culture in Louisiana with such nuance and care it feels more like a filmmaker who has already spent a lifetime reflecting on the good and bad that surrounds communities such as this.

While young filmmakers tend to wear their influences obnoxiously, Youmans has clear favorite filmmakers (most noticeably Terrence Malick), yet his desire to emulate others never takes priority over the story he’s telling. His decision to use so much voiceover doesn’t ever feel like copying a different style, it feels wholly his own. Perhaps it’s because of the way he shoots Burning Cane with a unique style or it could be the specificity of the voiceovers. 

I can’t pretend to fully understand the perspective of Burning Cane (it’s the first film I’ve covered for Southern Sights that’s pretty far out of my realm of experience), but the movie feels grounded and authentic in a way great works of literature often do. Youmans creates a world that feels like he’s lived in or at the very least completely understands. It’s a simple and specific story with no more than a few characters, but the themes of cyclical abuse and alcoholism are vast and universal. 

The scenes in Burning Cane are challenging, sometimes drawn-out, and rhythmic to a point of drowsiness. It’s right on message with the movie, though, that we could all be put to sleep by the rhythmic, destructive cycles we’re watching as bystanders. In the end, the movie offers no call-to-action, but instead a calling-out of our lackadaisical voyeurism that reinforces these systems.