On realism, allegory, and hot Southern summers.
I’ve written many times before in this space about the difficult but vital question of how we might better remember our darkest national histories, a list that without question features prominently histories of race and slavery, lynching and segregration, and their attendant horrors. The issue isn’t simply that we don’t remember those histories, although certainly that’s the case when compared to more widely shared historical topics such as the Revolutionary and Civil Wars (which, while not without their darknesses, are far easier to fit into progressive national narratives). It’s also that when we have produced cultural texts that engage with those dark histories, we have far too often done so through stereotypes and myths, through a-historical misrepresentations of the past, or through triumphal narratives of overcoming obstacles that allow us to pat ourselves on the back rather than really examine the histories on their own terms.
Those aren’t the only options, however, and I would argue that two films set in the dog days of Southern summer offer two very distinct but perhaps complementary means through which to engage more honestly with some of our darkest histories. Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) is a gritty, realistic crime drama, one in which Philadelphia detective Virgil Tibbs (played famously by Sidney Poitier), passing through the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, finds himself working closely with the town’s racist police chief (Rod Steiger) to investigate the murder of a wealthy businessman. Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan (2006) is an over-the-top melodrama, one in which a troubled, drug addicted, and nymphomaniac young woman (Christina Ricci) is discovered by a religious but bitter former blues musician (Samuel L. Jackson) who decides to keep her chained up in his house until he can cure her of her various addictions. Despite their significant differences in style and tone, the two films share not only this emphasis on a forced and uncomfortable relationship between black and white characters, but also prominent imagery of heat to highlight their tensions: from Heat’s titular reference to Black Snake Moan’s tagline, “Everything is hotter down South.”
It’d be easy, and not at all inaccurate, to focus any analysis of this pairing on the differences between the two films. Those differences likewise link the films to two distinct, longstanding artistic genres: Black Snake Moan fits nicely into the tradition known as the Southern gothic, a genre that uses extreme imagery and tones to capture allegorically the region’s worst and best sides; while In the Heat of the Night uses the realistic plotting, characterization, and attention to detail of detective fiction and the police procedural to explore its social and cultural setting and world. Yet I would argue that to engage with the South’s (and America’s) darkest histories requires a combination of these two modes: a detective’s ability and willingness to investigate the past and unearth the truth, no matter how unattractive it might be; and in so doing, a sensibility attuned to the Gothic extremes that have, quite simply, characterized histories like lynching far more often and thoroughly than we’d care to admit. As such, a dog day double billing of these two films might just be the ticket to a fuller understanding of the sultry South, and all of us.
Last dog days film tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Summertime movies you’d highlight?
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