“Southern by the grace of God:” religion and race in Hollywood’s South since the 1960s

Hunt, Megan (2016) “Southern by the grace of God:” religion and race in Hollywood’s South since the 1960s. Doctoral thesis, Northumbria University.

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This thesis examines the presentation and functions of Protestant Christianity in cinematic depictions of the American South, focusing primarily on Hollywood’s civil rights narratives, from the 1960s to the present. It argues that religion is an understudied signifier of the South on film, used to define the region’s presumed exceptionalism. Rooted in close textual analysis and primary research into the production and reception of over a dozen films, the thesis deploys methodologies drawn from history, film, literary, and cultural studies. It questions why scholars have seldom acknowledged the role of religion in popular, especially cinematic, constructions of the South, before providing detailed case studies of specific films that utilize southern religiosity to negotiate regional and national anxieties around race, class, and gender.

Though scholars have recognized the intersections of race, class, and gender evident in the media’s construction of southern white segregationist, this thesis contends that religion adds further interrogative value to existing analyses of civil rights cinema in particular, and of Hollywood’s representations of southern race, class, and gender identities more generally. The thesis argues that the perceived religious zealotry of many segregationists supports Hollywood’s recurring presentation of the South as an irrational region, where religiosity and rabid racism cloud all judgment.

The perceived ‘southernization’ of America through the culture wars of the late twentieth-century encouraged many Americans to reconsider the legacy of the civil rights era, a movement that was being concurrently reshaped in the popular imagination by Hollywood dramas such as Mississippi Burning, A Time to Kill, and Ghosts of Mississippi among many other films. Examining the presentation of both white and black Christianity in these films, the thesis illuminates how cinema has routinely fabricated a simplistic binary of good and evil that pits a noble, yet reductive and static, religious African American community against zealous white trash and fundamentalists operating on the margins of society. So often to blame for the incendiary racial violence that marks such movies, these white villains are often associated with fundamentalism, in both rhetoric and actions, enabling filmmakers to offer a clear culprit for the South’s, and therefore the nation’s, legacy of racial intolerance and violence.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Uncontrolled Keywords: American studies, southern states, cinema, civil rights movement, religion in the American south
Subjects: V300 History by topic
V600 Theology and Religious studies
W400 Drama
Department: Faculties > Arts, Design and Social Sciences > Humanities
Depositing User: Ellen Cole
Date Deposited: 28 Mar 2018 14:40
Last Modified: 22 Sep 2022 09:45
URI: https://nrl.northumbria.ac.uk/id/eprint/32576

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