"It's now that counts": the South in Hollywood's Sixties films

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Spectres of a North-South divide loom large within Hollywood cinema’s representation of the 1960s (or “Sixties”). This division joins a series of intense conflicts – between young and old, liberals and conservatives, hip and square, doves and hawks – permeating the way in which the Sixties are depicted. Whether exploring the Vietnam War, civil rights movement or counterculture, films as diverse as Hair, The Rose (both 1979), Everybody’s All American (1988), Forrest Gump (1994), Ali (2001), The Butler (2013) and Get on Up (2014) revisit the era as a forum within which age-old social and political disagreements are confronted and, often, resolved. Such films have participated in high-profile ideological discourses in the US public sphere on the Sixties’ impact and legacy (Marcus, 2004; Von Bothmer, 2010). This essay considers Hollywood’s “framing” of the South in a range of Sixties representations.

While much has been written on filmic portrayals of the civil rights movement (e.g. Graham 2001; Monteith 2003; Gruner 2016), less attention has been paid to the extent to which “the South” operates as a symbolic motif across Hollywood’s Sixties films. Central to these representations is a visioning of the South – through location, character-types and political allusions – as less a geographical space than a narrative construct and series of (often pejorative) political, social and emotional ideas: “naivety”, “innocence”, “backwardness”, “reactionary”, “square” and so forth. Examining a range of primary materials – draft scripts, interviews, production documents – as well as analysing the finished films, I explore the ways in which the South has been shaped into an ideologically and emotionally charged concept. The essay begins with a brief discussion of the drama Midnight Cowboy (1969), which, though produced in the 1960s (unlike the rest of those analysed, which look back at the Sixties), provided a much-replicated Southern archetype in the character of Joe Buck, a naïve foil to New York’s countercultural scene. Echoes of Buck can be found in Hair’s Claude Hooper Bukowski and The Rose’s Houston Dyer. The essay continues with an analysis of these two films, and the manner in which an idea of the South provides them with both narrative anchor and ideological content. The essay’s third section focuses on more recent Sixties representations (Get on Up among others), considering the diverse ways in which ideas/stereotypes related to “Southerness” are promulgated and, occasionally, challenged, in these films.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSouthern History on Screen: Race and Rights, 1976-2016
EditorsBryan Jack
PublisherUniversity Press of Kentucky
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)978-0-8131-7644-4
Publication statusPublished - 4 Dec 2018


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