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Are all films about Mississippi good for the state?

Posted on September 21st, 2011
Posted on September 21st, 2011

By Coop Cooper

Last week I was interviewed by “The Washington Times” and Tuesday by “SuperTalk” Mississippi radio host Paul Gallo about how Hollywood portrays Mississippi in motion pictures. While I have talked about this subject before in my articles, these interviews got me thinking about the topic again especially now that “The Help” has thrust Mississippi back into the cultural spotlight.

But it wasn’t “The Help” these two media outlets wanted to interview me about. They were curious about the negatively-slanted movies Hollywood continues to produce about the state, particularly the remake of the violent 1971 masterpiece “Straw Dogs” which opened last weekend. The original featured Dustin Hoffman as a meek American mathematician who, with his wife, moves to her hometown in the English countryside. The local hayseeds lust after his wife and bully him for his weak, Yankee demeanor. They eventually rape the wife and lay siege to the couple’s home to finish them off. The husband resorts to unthinkable violence in order to survive. The 2011 remake relocates this same story in Mississippi.

While I have yet to view this remake, the film displays the potential for showing the state in an overwhelmingly negative light. Films like “The Help” and “The Blind Side” have positive themes and uplifting endings despite the region’s social stigma. They put forth a level of solidarity and a lingering hope… that the negative aspects of the South are changing for the better. Other films seek to exploit the South (Mississippi in particular), to take advantage of the darker parts of its history and current stereotypes, representing it as a place of violence and horror. In the “Miami Herald” the director/co-writer of the “Straw Dogs” remake, Rod Lurie, explained his reasoning for setting the film in Mississippi was because it is a place “where the lifestyle is violence.” I’m quite surprised there hasn’t been any outrage over that statement as of yet.

Another troubling example of this trend is Quentin Tarantino’s next (and yet unfilmed) project entitled “Django Unchained.” Loosely titled from a 1960’s Spaghetti Western franchise, this film will tell the story of a slave-turned-bounty hunter in Civil War-era Mississippi who seeks revenge against an exceptionally cruel plantation owner. A source claiming to have read the script told Indiewire.com, “This film deals with racism as I’ve rarely seen it handled in a Hollywood film. While it’s 100 percent pure popcorn and revenge flick, it is pure genius in the way it takes on the evil slave owning south. Think of what he did with the Nazis in Inglorious and you’ll get a sense of what he’s doing with slave owners and slave overseers in this one.”

I found that statement more than a little disturbing. It suggests that Tarantino plans a cartoonishly stylized version of Mississippi that portrays its people and history to a highly exaggerated degree. While this suggests that he will mostly pick on whites, don’t forget that Tarantino has been highly criticized in his past films for portraying African Americans as stereotypes as well. With many native filmmakers and community leaders working hard to change the perception of Mississippi, such a film sounds like an undermining of our hard work. Add to the fact that the “Straw Dogs” remake was filmed in Louisiana and “Django Unchained” is scheduled to shoot there as well, Mississippi will receive no foreseeable benefit from either one of these films.

Django” is going to be a tongue-in-cheek grindhouse film and I understand that. I’ve enjoyed most of the ones Tarantino has made in the past and I don’t believe he has an agenda with this one other than to entertain. I will see it and the “Straw Dogs” remake and I will fairly evaluate them both. However, I would like to give Hollywood filmmakers and non-Mississippians some food for thought…

Mississippi is a resilient and culturally-rich state. It has survived devastating hurricanes and biblical floods. Its leaders work hard to improve living conditions and bring industry/businesses to the area. Its artists produce some of the most celebrated and unique works of literature, music, and art in the world. Its citizens hold their heads up high despite having more financial, educational and health hardships than any state in the union. The people of Mississippi will never let the negative reputation and history of the state stop them from striving to make things better.

Two-dimensional cartoon characters don’t live here. Real people do. Let’s see more movies about them.

-Coop

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