Southern Fried Films
by John Farr
John Farr ventures south for three of the finest films about the region.
Inherit the Wind (1960)
In this courtroom drama based on the landmark Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s, defense lawyer Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy) and fundamentalist prosecutor Matthew Brady (March) face off when schoolteacher Bertram Cates (Dick York), is put in jail for teaching evolution in tiny Hillsboro, Tennessee, with the arrest instigated by his girlfriend’s disapproving father, Rev. Jeremiah Brown (Claude Akins).
WHY I LOVE IT:
Kramer’s spellbinding film features a deft performance by Tracy as the rumpled, deceptively plain-spoken Drummond (modeled on Clarence Darrow), matched by March’s larger than life, virtuoso turn as Matthew Brady (based on William Jennings Bryan). Just sit back, pretend you’re sitting in that humid courtroom, and watch two old pros at work. You’ll re-live history. Also look for Gene Kelly in one of his only serious, non-dancing roles as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Black San Francisco police Detective Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) ends up in wrong place at wrong time – the Deep South, where a murder has just been committed. Set up against a bigoted, wily sheriff (Rod Steiger), Tibbs must unravel the mystery and clear himself, watching his back in hostile territory.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Intense action drama boasts a tight script and a pair of explosive lead performances by Poitier and Steiger. “Heat” netted Oscars in most top categories that year – Picture, Actor (Steiger), Screenplay and Editing. And though Steiger won the award, it’s just as much Poitier’s movie. Director Jewison makes palpable the racial ignorance and poverty long ingrained in the Deep South.
Mississippi Burning (1988)
Alan Parker’s film recreates the true story of three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi in 1964, and takes some dramatic license in doing so. Agents Rupert Anderson (Gene Hackman) and Alan Ward (Willem Dafoe) arrive down South to investigate the disappearance of the three men (two white, one black), and their warm welcome comes in the form of a burning KKK cross. Brad Dourif, R. Lee Ermey, Gailard Sartain and Michael Rooker make up this unsavory welcome party, and Frances McDormand is Dourif’s neglected wife. The FBI team must break through a small town’s wall of silence to solve the mystery, while trying to control violent retribution against the local black population.
WHY I LOVE IT:
Though detractors claim the movie inaccurately depicts a white FBI coming in to rescue helpless blacks, I disagree: the film features some extremely courageous black characters, and at the outset, the FBI seems more muddled than heroic. Regardless of debates on historical accuracy, the movie is breathlessly exciting and extremely well-played. Though McDormand was Oscar-nominated for the small but pivotal role of Mrs. Pell, the movie is Hackman’s, as he turns in his most explosive performance since “The French Connection”(and he also got an Oscar nod).