Arts

Ben Beard Explores The South Through Movies

Ben Beard's new book The South Never Plays Itself
Ben Beard's new book The South Never Plays Itself

“The South is both a region and a thought experiment,” said writer and film critic Ben Beard. Born and raised in the South, he aims to reexamine how our attitudes toward Southern history are culturally conditioned through cinema and narrative. The South Never Plays Itself is Beard’s new book that is part cultural history, part film criticism and part memoir. On June 3, the author will participate in a virtual event at the Atlanta History Center in conversation with Emory film professor Matthew Bernstein. Ben Beard joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom to explore themes of Southern identity through the often distorted lens of Hollywood.

Interview highlights:

On the process, the scope, and the many edits:

“I was in Iowa City and my wife was in graduate school … I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t know anybody,” Beard recounted. “They had a great public library, and so I would go and grab a bunch of films, and I was only grabbing the good stuff … for two years I watched, basically, a movie a night … I wouldn’t trade those years for the world.”

“My first draft was 650 pages,” Beard said. “And I turned it in to the publisher and said, ‘I’m adding 10 films a week’ … This thing was going to be like a four-volume magnum opus. So I mean, there’s a whole other book that was edited out, of the same length basically.” 

A sampling of Beard’s ‘takes’:

Gone with the Wind [was] a rejection of the Civil War narrative that the country had up to that point — utterly false,” Beard said. “But Gone with the Wind has this immense pull, that pulls people into its narrative arc. And we’re still arguing over that film. I mean, President Trump mentioned in on the campaign trail in March last year.”

Birth of a Nation caused actual murder. The KKK reformed after the popularity of the film, and they committed widespread terror and murder. Honestly, if Birth of a Nation had never come out, you could argue, the KKK would have never reformed.” 

“The problem with [the film Selma] is that Martin Luther King is one of the only saints, one of the only heroes we have. And it’s not that he’s boring, because he was a complex man. He was very funny, he was steely, he was politically astute, he was a genius, he was a great public speaker. He had a lot going for him. However, the movie can’t square that. The movie can’t be about him, because he’s too sacred. I’m glad it was made … but I wish we had a better film about the Selma-to-Montgomery march.”

On misleading representations of the South in cinema:

“I believe a couple of key novels and a couple of key films have given the world a view of the South that’s mythical and false,” Beard said. “And I’m talking about ‘Gone with the Wind,’ I’m talking about the work of William Faulkner, I’m talking about Tennessee Williams… it almost creates a tapestry that’s contradictory at times, but it’s more real in the minds of most people, including people living in the South, than the world we live in.”

“I think the South has tons to reckon with and atone for. However, the idea that every southerner is racist, and that every non-southerner is … some racially enlightened person, that’s crazy. Because just look around our country. The police are shooting Black citizens everywhere.”

Listeners can register to hear Ben Beard’s conversation with Matthew Bernstein at the Atlanta History Center at http://www.atlantahistorycenter.com.

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