by Melissa Strong
Regionalism is a style and mode of expression that has helped to distinguish American arts by celebrating what makes our country special and unique. Regionalism resists a homogenized, “melting pot” conception of American culture, instead recognizing that American identities and experiences differ depending on place but also class, race, ethnicity, and gender. Equally important, regionalism usually attempts faithful renderings rather than caricatures, unlike shows such as Swamp People; the best regionalist artists dignify, not degrade, their subjects.
For instance, during the 1930s, Thomas Hart Benton painted average people working and living in the Midwest. This art not only documented rural lives, it also portrayed them sympathetically as the economy failed and other Americans wanted to forget them. Even earlier, writers recorded local customs and lingo in regionalist or “local color” literature, and people went wild for it around the turn of the twentieth century. For instance, Sarah Orne Jewett wrote about the Northeast, Bret Harte sketched the West, Zitkala-Sa described Dakota Sioux life on the plains, and Charles Chesnutt and Joel Chandler Harris chronicled the South.
Movies do the same. Fortunately, most regionalist films do not resemble the Disney abomination Song of the South (1946), which was based on the books of folktales that Harris, a white guy, collected from African Americans. Here is a mixtape of (mostly) twenty-first century films that celebrate distinct regions of America.
Sweet Land (2006): Bachelor Norwegian farmer seeks mail-order bride in post-World War I Minnesota. But oops, she’s German, and Germans are the enemy. Tender love story ensues, with smokin’-hot Tim Guinee and Elizabeth Reaser, thanks to open minds and open hearts. Sweet Land is also a love letter to the small family farms central to our nation’s agricultural heritage.
Shotgun Stories (2007): The first film Jeff Nichols wrote and directed features a family feud in rural Arkansas, his native state. Regional details, and Michael Shannon’s performance, elevate the story of conflict between a dead man’s first and second family. Some of these details may seem incredible, such as character names: someone goes by Shampoo, and one set of brothers is named Son, Boy, and Kid. Then there is the scene with those three brothers sitting around a backyard picnic table, on which sits a wall unit blowing AC into the jungle-like heat. Reader, I can attest that Nichols’ rendering is true to life. I lived in Arkansas for nearly four years, plus three years just across the border in Oklahoma. Shotgun Stories captured some of the people and places I saw, right from the deafening buzz of cicadas in the opening scene.
Mud (2012): Also set in Arkansas, this Nichols film is the B side to Shotgun Stories, portraying the people and culture of the Delta region along the Mississippi River. Today, this area is far removed from the bustle and prosperity it enjoyed when its cotton plantations relied on slave labor. Shirtless McConaughey and Southern-Fried Witherspoon are OK as a mysterious drifter and his true love, while Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland shine as Ellis and Neckbone, two local kids facing changes to life on the river as they know it.
Smoke Signals (1998): Nichols’ flavor of regionalism owes a debt to this film about contemporary indigenous Americans. Part of Smoke Signals is set on a reservation, where the radio station’s traffic van is broken down at the crossroads and someone has a car that only drives in reverse. The screenplay was written by Sherman Alexie, based on one of his short stories. Smoke Signals contains Alexie’s characteristic blend of humor, pain, and truth, which makes up for the terrible wig on Adam Beach during the second act. Since the film’s release, many have asked how Alexie got the idea for a car that only goes backwards. Easy: there actually was a car like that on the reservation where Alexie grew up.
Gimme the Loot (2012): This caper written and directed by Adam Leon is the urban flip side to the films above. Like Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) before it, Gimme the Loot demonstrates that America’s regions and cultures include the urban as well as the rural. People may look, dress, and talk differently, but they share fundamental similarities and have many of the same desires. Graffiti is as important to Malcolm and Sophia as the houseboat is to Ellis in Mud. Life can be just as hard on the city streets as it is in the middle of nowhere, and less privileged children and young adults often lack supervision and guidance from caring adults.
American regionalism celebrates the country’s rich diversity. Like a good mixtape, regionalist films offer a range of voices, styles, tempos, and perspectives. Try watching a movie about other places here in our own country and learning about the experiences of the people there. This kind of movie viewing might help make America great again.