Southern culture and history often inspire Hollywood films. These movies can offer a glimpse at past perceptions and truths about the region, from its music to its changing social climate. These 10 classics, from a legendary pre-war motion picture to a recent biopic, offer talking points about Southern cultural history as well as immense entertainment value.
Gone with the Wind (1939)
Despite the historical inaccuracies viewers can expect from old books and movies, this Margaret Mitchell novel turned Oscar winning film is nearly as synonymous with Atlanta as Braves baseball and Coca-Cola.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Real-life racial strife in author Harper Lee’s Alabama hometown inspired an unlikely literary classic. Its film adaptation further immortalized the story of Atticus Finch and the people of Maycomb, Ala. The movie’s popularity may have something to do with the original book’s sustained spot on summer reading lists.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
The seminal 1977 blockbuster not titled Star Wars was as Southern as they come. Smokey and the Bandit put money back into the metro Atlanta economy long before filming there became commonplace for Hollywood productions. Its cast stars a future Country Music Hall of Fame member in Jerry Reed and a former Florida State football player in Burt Reynolds. Best of all, it still stands up today as a great comedy film chock-full of memorable quotes.
Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980)
The best country music biopic doubles as an earnest take on Loretta Lynn’s Butcher Hollow, Ky. upbringing. It’s among the most accurate depictions of Deep South “rags” from any rags to riches story. Plus, Sissy Spacek proved to be a talented country singer in her own right.
The story of Southern music, and the blueprint for modern Americana, involves more than country singers. Depending on where you live or visit, the blues might’ve played a larger role in shaping the musical landscape. This underappreciated coming of age drama provides a Cliff’s Notes version of the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” myth, offering a peek at the sort of urban legends and overnight success stories that dot the blues’ rich history.
Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)
The best-known story by Southern author Fannie Flagg made for a hilarious and touching film. Set in Flagg’s Birmingham, Ala. hometown, it captures the experiences and friendships of multiple generations of women.
Forrest Gump (1994)
Gump’s unlikely encounters with some of the 20th centuries’ defining moments begins in a fictitious Alabama town. The coolest happenstance in the title character’s journey might have been his stint playing for legendary University of Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. It wasn’t a creative fluke on the part of the original book’s author, 1965 Alabama graduate Winston Groom.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Although it stands on its own as a comedy and adventure with clear parallels to Homer’s The Odyssey, it’s the roots music that makes O Brother a seminal film. The film and its soundtrack played key roles in keeping early country music relevant in the early oughts. It did for country music what Cold Mountain did for raising interests in shape-note hymn singing.
Cold Mountain (2003)
On the surface, Cold Mountain is among the best modern-day films about the Civil War. Its lasting effect for Southern music fans, however, was its role in spreading and normalizing the sound and practice of shape-note hymn singing. The old tradition retains a relatively small yet active following throughout the states and Europe.
The story of Dr. King’s voter’s rights efforts in West Alabama, near his wife Coretta’s Perry County birthplace, is counterbalanced by pressures directly from the White House. It’s a bold and earnest take on events that propelled the New South further into the 20th century.