Thanks in part to its troubled past, the American South has seen a blossom of artistic endeavors. The culture of the region is steeped heavily in the appreciation for oral tradition, so it is no wonder that so many Southerners have made careers out of the art of storytelling.
For this reason, many brilliant films take place in the Southeastern United States. Because of the area’s distinct personality, a viewer can normally tell immediately if it is the setting for a film. Here are some movies that made extraordinary use of their Southern location.
15. Deliverance (1972)
There were many communities in the South which remained isolated well into the 20th century. A fictional group of incestuous, backwater rednecks is featured in John Boorman’s adaptation of James Dickey’s novel Deliverance. There is a dangerous culture clash when four urbanites stumble upon this community.
Though the movie didn’t do any favors for the Southern reputation, it use of its haunting setting to display nature as an unstoppable force. The protagonists are at the mercy of their surroundings, which would rather see them dead than to have them intrude upon a culture that doesn’t belong to them.
This is not the story of a float trip; it is the tale of unabashed chaos and vengeance. Deliverance will, for many reasons, affix itself to the psyches of its audience members long after the gruesome viewing.
14. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
Much of the necessity of storytelling in Southern tradition stems from the social nature of the region’s inhabitants. Understanding this, Fried Green Tomatoes centers around Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) relaying a story of both friendship and loss to Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates). While movies that use frame stories to show flashbacks can often feel cheap and unnecessary, here it is reminiscent of culture it aims to examine.
Southerners are social creatures, and they are willing to share their adventures with anyone who cares to listen, as we constantly see in movies such as Forrest Gump. Fried Green Tomatoes plays on our emotions, but it is a window into the inner workings of Southern Society, complete with dark secrets.
13. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Told through the eyes of a child, To Kill a Mockingbird is able to look at societal prejudice through the lens of hopeful ignorance. Scout (Mary Badham) is fortunate to have a father such as Atticus (Gregory Peck) who embodies the ideals of justice even in the face of intolerance, but she holds onto her own prejudices about Boo Radley (Robert Duvall).
It is this hypocrisy which peeks it head during much of American culture as a whole. We are quick to jump to someone’s defense when it is convenient for us, but we will rarely speak out against the masses. To Kill a Mockingbird cuts to the core of bigotry, as even those who know their action are wrong are silenced by the views of the mob.
12. Sling Blade (1996)
Upon being released from a psychiatric hospital after being convicted of murder, Karl Childers (Billy Bob Thornton) experiences first-hand the prejudice that is able to germinate in small towns.
The Southern Gothic tradition has had a long history with placing those with physical or mental disabilities on display, and writer/director/star Thornton chooses to situate this notion at the forefront of his tale. Karl’s connection to religion dictates his every move, and it works to formulate his view of justice. Through his convictions, the blurry line between good and evil is drawn down the middle of this Southern parable.
11. Django Unchained (2012)
In keeping with the liberal retelling of history he established with Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino used Django Unchained to give a freed slave the satisfaction of revenge against the system that stripped him of his humanity. Combining blaxploitation movies and spaghetti Westerns, this film is able to go over the top without losing any of its potency.
Like so many movies that are being celebrated by this one, good and evil are defined in black and white terms so that we never have any qualms as our hero is blowing up a plantation. It is crude, it is excessive, and it works on so many levels.
10. Gone With The Wind (1939)
A classic novel turned classic movie, Gone With The Wind is a timeless tale heavily draped in the restrictions of societal norms in the South. As the characters are faced with the economic and social changes brought about by the end of the Civil War, their flaws are brought to the light in a way that it undeniably interesting and uncomfortably realistic.
Spoiled Scarlett O’Hara is the caricature of a Southern belle, complete with her stubborn pride and strict attention to manners. Her romance, though born out of hate, with Rhett Butler represents the Romantic ideals of 19th century Southern nobility. Through the grand scale of the sets and the vivid use of Technicolor, Gone With The Wind is one of the most stunningly beautiful films ever made, especially when considering its unprecedented accomplishments.
9. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Through our industry and innovation, it is easy to forget about the communities that life outside of our protective bubble. In the world Behn Zeitlin so gracefully crafts, a young girl’s (Quvenzhane Wallis) way of life is threatened when her culture is on the brink of being both physically and metaphorically washed away.
The Bathtub is distinctly unique, but it could exist anywhere that has yet to conform to mainstream social norms. Hushpuppy’s vivid imagination allows both her angels and demons to take physical form, but not in the way we have come to expect. This visual ballad proves that you don’t need hundred million dollar budgets and Hollywood royalty to make a lasting impact on an audience.