- - Thursday, September 15, 2011

If, as Michael Medved contends, Hollywood hates America, then it really, really hates Mississippi.

A long line of films — from “In the Heat of the Night” to “Mississippi Burning” and “A Time to Kill” — have cemented the state’s image in American culture as a brutal, benighted backwater teeming with violent bigots.

A steady stream, decade after decade, of screen images of hooded Klansmen, burning crosses and Yankee actors butchering Southern drawls while drenched in sweat have overwhelmed the occasional scenes of remarkably ordinary contemporary life that visitors to the state are far more likely to witness.

On Friday, Hollywood extends its rich tradition of Mississippi-bashing with the national release of “Straw Dogs,” director Rod Lurie’s remake of auteur Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 thriller about a nonviolent academic interloper pushed into violence by the invasion of his home by resentful locals.

While the Peckinpah original was, like the novel upon which it was based, set in rural England, Mr. Lurie has transplanted the story to southern Mississippi, where bullying Deep South rednecks conveniently step in for the resentful British working-class barbarians who torment Dustin Hoffman as David Sumner, a privileged outsider.

Current hit "The Help," starring Viola Davis, gives a more balanced view of the state, with sympathetic characters both black and white. (Disney via Associated Press)
Current hit “The Help,” starring Viola Davis, gives a more balanced view ... more >

Mr. Lurie, credited as a co-writer as well as director of the remake — shot in Louisiana, standing in for Mississippi — told the Miami Herald that he chose the setting to “plant these characters in a community where the lifestyle is violence.”

There is no denying or defending Mississippi’s role as a bastion of resistance to racial integration and equality during the civil rights era. But in addition to being a historical signifier, it also happens to be an actual — you know — place, where actual people continue to live and work. But in the imagination of Hollywood, Mississippi has long since ceased to be a place and become instead a facile metaphor for violent racial bigotry and hostility to outsiders.

“If you look historically at films, even if there’s a sort of ‘My Dog Skip’ story set in Mississippi with a sentimental vibe, Mississippi tends to function as the worst of the South concentrated,” said Ted Atkinson, an assistant professor of English at Mississippi State University who is working on a book about the state’s representation in American culture.

There are exceptions, of course, to the prevailing stereotype. The current hit “The Help,” a civil rights drama set in the state, presents a view of Mississippi that includes sympathetic characters — both black and white — with commendable morals and motives alongside the grim realities of segregation and racial prejudice. Another example of a positive mainstream portrayal is “The Blind Side,” the 2009 box-office smash that stars Sandra Bullock as a wealthy Mississippi woman whose family takes in a black football prodigy.

For all its faults, Mississippi has an incredibly rich artistic history whose lasting effects on American culture have been partly obscured by the inescapable stereotype. It’s the birthplace of artists ranging from Elvis Presley to Robert Johnson, the homeland of William Faulkner, often considered the 20th century’s greatest novelist, and Eudora Welty. The small towns and dirt roads often portrayed on-screen are overshadowed by towns such as Oxford, where portraits of Faulkner hang in fast-food restaurants, and the capital, Jackson, host to the USA International Ballet Competition.

Melanie Addington, a director of the Oxford Film Festival, said she has seen firsthand how negative depictions of Mississippi have conditioned visitors to expect the worst. “Every year I have filmmakers that nervously arrive for the festival expecting to be thrust into a scene from ‘Mississippi Burning.’ They are always pleasantly surprised that instead Oxford is an artsy little town with people from all over the world making it home.”

“The idea of Mississippi has functioned in the American imagination as a kind of holding bin for negative things about the nation,” said Kathryn McKee, an associate professor of Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, about the persistently unflattering film portrayals.

“Mississippi just has that cultural baggage and stigma,” Mr. Atkinson said. “It just keeps perpetuating because these Hollywood representations tend to follow that heritage and continue that narrative. It just becomes hard to overcome that.”

With every major film that recycles the familiar images of rampant poverty, ignorance and pointless violence, of course, the popular stereotype is reinforced. Ultimately, it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy, scaring away potential investment and tourism from the actual Mississippi — black and white, rich and poor — deepening the isolation and depressing the economy of a state that already ranks near the bottom as measured by most key social and economic indicators.

Coop Cooper, a Mississippi-based film critic who runs the website Small Town Critic, argues that despite decades of progress in the state, some would be content to see Mississippi remain as it is in the cultural eye. “Things are changing for the better,” he said. “I’m sure a lot of people, including folks from Hollywood, would like to keep that from happening. They need to have some sort of state to lay these stigmas upon, and Mississippi is easier than most.”