Beasts of the Southern screen: race, gender, and the global South in American cinema since 1963
Leventer, Sarah Catherine
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“Beasts of the Southern screen: race, gender, and the global South in American cinema since 1963,” explores the role that the Southern imaginary has played at the crux of national, media, and personal mythmaking. This dissertation argues that the Southern imaginary—here defined as filmic images of Southernness—has helped Americans manage a series of crises from the late Cold War period to the current moment. Repudiating an allegedly recalcitrant South allowed the United States to see itself as a democratic, progressive place (via downward comparison) even as events like the Civil Rights movement, feminism, and the Vietnam War imperiled the coherence of national identity. Imagined sojourns through the South have also helped filmmakers glimpse the alternative, unauthorized fantasies and fears that swirl just underneath “official narratives” of national and personal identity. Films set in the Southern imaginary are thus crucially important to processing the traumas that connect nation and subject. As a fantasy space, the Southern imaginary allows subjects to confront overwhelming events that can only be endured when “staring over the fence” into a region at once a part of and distinct from the nation. The first two chapters argue that filmmakers use images of an antiquated South to process Vietnam War-era traumas. Slavery epics like The Beguiled and Southern horror films including Deliverance allegorize white anxieties over the political influence of minority populations. Later chapters contend that Southern-set films continue to appropriate stories of marginalized peoples, but now under the mantle of tolerance. The third chapter argues that Hollywood films starring Southern, queer cowboys demonstrate the ascendancy of American progressivism even in the once-repressive South. However, these films often exclude minority subjects from their purportedly tolerant landscapes. The final chapter of this dissertation therefore turns to films made within Southern communities like Moonlight, analyzing how the filmmakers use silence and visual obscurity to resist the objectifying gaze of the camera. In the films analyzed, the Southern imaginary emerges as fertile site for trenchant social critique and fantasies that connect the personal to the political.