Reading Ben Beard’s “The South Never Plays Itself”

Before I write anything about his book, I want to share first that Ben Beard is a friend of mine. I’ve known Ben for twenty years, worked with him for a while in the early 2000s, and have great respect for him as a writer and editor. Yet, for any biases that may impose on me as a reader and reviewer of The South Never Played Itself, it also gives me the ability to know something that other people have to assume: that Ben’s approach toward and treatment of this subject – movies – are sincere. He really is the movie buff he claims to be, and he really is the reticent Southerner in the narrative.

It was no surprise to me that Ben wrote a book about Southern movies. I also write a little bit on the topic, but have always known that Ben’s knowledge and experience with films blows me out of the water. The subtitle of The South Never Plays Itself “A Film Buff’s Journey Through the South on Screen” is an accurate foretaste of what will be inside. Ben was born in Atlanta, grew up in Pensacola, Florida then came to Montgomery, Alabama – where I met him – for college. In the opening chapter, he explains his Southern roots along with his not-Southern roots, which culminated in his tenuous relationship to the region, a relationship made more complex by the film industry.

The South Never Plays Itself is arranged topically, though somewhat chronologically, and the style of the writing is more personal than one might expect. The book is kind of about Southern movies but also about the author, too. And where better to start, if you’re writing about Southern films, than Birth of a Nation, that mythic portrayal of the Civil War and its aftermath that became the one of the nation’s first blockbusters. The chapter opens with a block quote from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and then Ben gives us his intro: “The Civil War remains a misconstrued and contested historical event.” True. And this film had a lot to do with that, with its narrative of good (white, Southern) versus evil (black, Yankee). From there, the chapter continues with Gone with the Wind from the 1930s and Disney’s Song of the South from the 1940s, followed by briefer discussions of lesser-known classics Cabin in the Sky and Little Foxes.

From there, in the next two chapters, we encounter the giants William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams. I will say, before I get into the discussion in the book, that in my experience Faulkner’s fiction does not translate well into this visual medium, though the playwright Williams does, so I was especially curious to see what Ben had to say here. The former chapter puts The Southerner and Tobacco Road alongside adaptations of the Dixie Limited’s novels and stories, ultimately concluding that this is “a South haunted by the past, a place of demented suffering and malicious racism and cruelty, with tiny pockets of hope and kindness.” Regarding Tennessee Williams, the third chapter gives pages to well-known classics like Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as films that made less of an impression, like 1966’s This Property is Condemned.

From there, the next three chapters are place-based, taking a look at Louisiana, Texas, and Florida. Where Louisiana is definitely part of the the “Deep South,” its unique culture also makes it stand part from its neighboring states. Likewise, Texas and Florida occupy different mental territory; some might not even consider these states as part of “the South.” After the classically, mythically Southern subject matter in the early chapters, the book now moves on to more modern films, most from the middle and late 20th century.  Prior to reading these chapters, I don’t think I had fully realized the sheer breadth of styles and subject matter used to portray the South. To use Louisiana as an example, there are films ranging from the sober black-and-white Louisiana Story in 1940 to 1987’s wild and sultry Big Easy, which is is driven by “sleaze” (the author’s term).

Those chapters constitute the first one hundred pages of the book, and the next hundred cover an array of subjects: religion, the Ku Klux Klan, horror, noir, and more. Here again, the amount of material to discuss is staggering: Sling Blade, Wise Blood, and Deliverance; Nashville, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and WW and the Dixie Dancekings; and The Liberation of LB Jones, The Klansman, and To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s fair to say the book’s narrative moves quickly, darting and weaving among titles, making connections, and requiring some inferences. Reading The South Never Plays Itself will be much easier if you’ve seen a lot of movies. That may sound like an off-handed dig, but the simple truth is: it’d be hard for a reader who has only seen newer mainstream movies, or not many movies at all, to follow what is being discussed.

As the book winds down, we get “Good Times at the ’90s cafe,” a chapter title that made me chuckle when I looked at the list of films. Here, we have Driving Miss Daisy, Steel Magnolias, and Fried Green Tomatoes, but also the magical realism of Big Fish, the sometimes-goofy sentimentality of Forrest Gump, and the serious drama of Eve’s Bayou. Reading near the end of Ben’s book, I was continuing to realize that I had never thought about movies in this way. Encountering all of these titles and Ben’s ruminations about them reminded me of a kid laying out his whole baseball card or comic book collection all over the floor and trying to decide how to organize them. The totality of Southern movies had become awesome by this point.

The final two chapters, “President Bush and the Endless Wars” and “Black (Un)Like Me,”  push us into the 21st century. We’re no longer in the haunted, benighted land of Faulkner,  no longer staring slack-jawed at Jeeter Lester’s dirty brood.  By this time, the prevailing Southern imagery had left Smokey and the Bandit behind and evolved into Talladega Nights. The post-Katrina South has given us Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Likewise, the nation is being offered more realistic narratives from black history and black life in the South, like 12 Years a Slave— a stark counterweight to Birth of a Nation.

As an accomplishment, The South Never Plays Itself is both respectable and dizzying. The sheer volume of films discussed meant two things to me: first, my own experience with films was enhanced by Ben’s insights, and second, I learned about quite a few films I had not seen— of course, now I want to go watch them! I’d say that the best books on any subject cover some of what you know and offer something you don’t know, and this book does that.

Reading it as the editor of a project about beliefs, myths, and narratives had me neck deep in the quagmire of what it means to make myths. Films, as an artistic medium, need to capture us quickly, since they usually hover around two hours in length. A film has to introduce us to its subject, involve us in its story, and resolve its conundrums in about one hundred minutes, give or take. If you ask me, this requires some stereotyping, which allows the viewer to quickly recognize and understand the scenario, then those stereotypes get strengthened and carried away from the screening into real life. That’s what’s so tricky, and also kind of dangerous. But films also contain nuance within the visual storytelling. So, their beauty and importance can’t be reduced down so easily. All in all, these ideas and concerns made me thankful to take this “film’s buff journey” with him.

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