American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary
Clukey, Amy, Philological Quarterly
American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary edited by Deborah E. Barker and Kathryn McKee. Athens, GA: U. of Georgia Press, 2011. Pp. ix + 374. Paper $24.95.
The University of Georgia's New Southern Studies series continues to put out books of strong interest to southernists with the publication of American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary. Edited by Deborah E. Barker and Kathryn McKee, this collection undertakes an "exploration of the ways in which the southern imaginary is constitutive of American cinema and of the ways in which the makers of movies ... have imagined the 'South' both to construct and to unsettle national narratives" (1). In view of Southern studies' long-standing interdisciplinary attention to the production and circulation of visual imagery and iconographies of southernness, a consideration of the South in film that approaches the topic through the lens of the New Southern Studies--that is, one that rejects exceptionalist and essentialist narratives and interpretations in favor of a more expansive, shifting, or even transnational "South"--is long overdue. Indeed, the last edited collection on the topic, The South in Film, edited by Warren G. French, appeared thirty years ago.
The collection's title reflects the compelling framework for Southern film studies that Barker and McKee set out in the introduction: that, far from being a marginal or merely regional set of tropes and images, the "South" has been integral to the development of American filmmaking and the national narratives it constructs. Drawing on theories of film, postmodernism, psychoanalysis, and postcolonialism, they define the concept of "the southern imaginary" as "an amorphous and sometimes conflicting collection of images, ideas, attitudes, practices, linguistic accents, histories, and fantasies about a shifting geographic region and time" (2). Barker and McKee, and their contributors, have no interest in deconstructing regional images in film in order to present a more "accurate" or, worse, more "authentic" South. Rather, they consistently argue that "never more so than today has the South failed to call forth a set of stable defining features" (2). Appropriately, then, the fourteen essays that follow reject easy definition and geographical pinpointing in order to evoke a panoply of unstable, even contradictory, Souths: at once biracial and multiethnic, backwards looking and future oriented, regional and national, local and global.
American Cinema and the Southern Imaginary is remarkable for the range of genres and films it manages to cover in a single volume. The contributors--a wide-ranging group drawn from English, film studies, African American and Native American studies, and musicology--discuss over thirty films such as silents, big-budget productions, classics, indies, documentaries, prestige films, and less high-minded projects. These include iconic films that one would expect in such a collection--The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, O Brother, Where Art Thou?--but also a range of lesser-known productions like Slackers, Loggerheads, and The Education of Little Tree, to name only a few. Not surprisingly the collection was inspired by the editors' experiences teaching courses on the South in film at the University of Mississippi, and the variety of films touched on in individual essays--along with the brief but far-reaching overview of Southern film history that Barker and McKee sketch in the introduction--make the collection ideal for use in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses in American culture and film studies. …