We all know the stereotype of the Southern man: strong of arm but slack of jaw, ready to wet his Dixie whistle with a hit off his ever-present bottle of beer. He is one with the rifle rack, who grows teary-eyed in the presence of the Confederate battle flag, who travels through life accompanied by a Merle Haggard soundtrack and, for much of the world, is the accepted representative of culture south of the Mason-Dixon line.
We have Hollywood to thank for that.
For years, Hollywood has been dishing up rednexploitation films, Southern-fried cinema replete with bumbling rural sheriffs, backwoods good ol' boys and small-town bullies who fit that narrow stereotype. Although these characters may not accurately represent the majority of Deep South residents, they have been featured in a few fairly fine films:
ODE TO BILLY JOE (1976): A sort-of adaptation of the Bobby Gentry hit song of the same name, this is a surprisingly complex and quirky tale of bittersweet young love, set in Mississippi (a favorite rednexploitation locale) during the 1950s. Although the song lays out the basic plot - a dissatisfied Billy Joe McAlister jumps to his watery grave from the Tallahatchee Bridge - what makes this small, and often overwrought, Southern gothic a winner is director Max Baer's (Jethro of Beverly Hillbillies fame) deft touch dealing with the confusion inherent in adolescence.
IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT (1967): One of the rednexploitation filmmakers' favorite targets is the small-town sheriff. Often played as a man driven by a reactive personality, these members of the law enforcement community usually are two-dimensional foils for a movie's good ol' boy protagonist, which is what makes In the Heat of the Night so interesting. On the surface, Rod Steiger's Chief Bill Gillespie seems to be yet another example of a cookie-cutter character from Hollywood's Southern character factory. But as the film progresses, audiences discover a complex character struggling to find his way as the New South emerges from the old.
SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977): Burt Reynolds became a star on the back of rednexploitation movies. Although films such as Hooper, Gator and The Longest Yard helped cement his charming Southern ne'er-do-well persona, it is Smokey and the Bandit that he will be best remembered for. Something of a blueprint for this genre, Smokey also starred the Great One, Jackie Gleason, as Sheriff Buford T. Justice, an equally iconic rednexploitation creation.
DELIVERANCE (1972): So stereotyped that they have almost become parodies of themselves, the backwoods brutes that terrorize a raft trip in Deliverance have become more famous than the film itself, which is a shame. Both the film and the novel on which it is based are interesting meditations on the limits of man, but are best remembered for banjo-picking and pig-squealing.
WALKING TALL (1973): Although the sequels have drained the original Walking Tall of much of its righteous power, there still is something stirring about seeing Joe Don Baker as Sheriff Buford Pusser, the Galahad of rednexploitation, take up the big stick and start handing out his own form of violent justice. A remake, starring the oddly cast The Rock, is in the works.
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org