~ Story & Photos by Gary Leva ~
My Southern education began at the Carlyle Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
As a documentary filmmaker, I often shoot interviews in New York. I rent a suite at The Carlyle, taking advantage of its lush, built-in production value – thick, flowered drapes, overstuffed sofas, colonial lamps – and its high level of security and service. I've interviewed Meryl Streep, Stephen Schwartz and Liza Minnelli here: Everyone welcomes a visit to The Carlyle.
On this day in February 2013, I was shooting interviews for my new film, “Old South, New South,” a documentary commissioned by Warner Bros. as a special feature for the 75th anniversary Blu-Ray release of “Gone with the Wind.” My first interviewee was Kathryn Stockett, who wrote the book “The Help.” I had seen pictures of her online, but I was not prepared for the lovely, self-assured woman who walked in right on time, a coffee in one hand, her makeup camera-ready. Stockett grew up in Jackson, Miss., and possesses what is, for me, a fetching combination of dazzling good looks and Southern elegance, with a potty mouth.
As my cinematographer made final adjustments to the lights, I made small talk. I've learned over the years never to discuss the actual subject of the interview until the cameras are rolling. Whatever is said you can ask them to repeat, but unless your subject is a professional actor, the second time will be stale compared to the first.
“You know, I’m from the South, too," I ventured.
“Oh really,” she replied, her soft Mississippi accent seeping through. “Where are you from?”
“I grew up in Dallas.”
She gave me a sly, sweet smile and said, “Honey, that ain’t the South.”
I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but I know now. That was the beginning of my Southern education.
I’ve been making documentaries for quite a few years now – my filmography lists more than 80 films. Most of my documentaries focus on cinema, particularly cinema history. Movie studios come to me to create special features to accompany new releases of classic films like “The Wizard of Oz,” “Star Wars” and “The Wild Bunch.” This would be my second go-round with “Gone with the Wind,” having previously produced a piece for its 70th anniversary.
When a film has been released as many times in as many media as “Gone with the Wind,” the challenge is coming up with a new idea for a special feature that hasn’t already been done. For the film’s 75th Anniversary, here’s what I pitched:
OLD SOUTH, NEW SOUTH
Take a journey of discovery through today's South, revisiting the real-life locations depicted in “Gone with the Wind,” from Gettysburg to Atlanta to New Orleans, to see how the world of the Old South – and the themes depicted in the film – continue to inform life in the cosmopolitan world of the New South.
I figured this would assure a film that was at least visually arresting – magnolias dripping Spanish moss, old plantation houses long abandoned, Civil War cannons standing in weedy fields, the clouds scudding by above them in time-lapse to represent the passage of time…
Warner Bros. approved my proposal. Now I had to figure out what the heck the film was going to be. The lack of clarity at this stage wasn’t daunting – many of my best documentaries have focused on subjects I didn’t know much about at the start. A documentarian’s process of discovering his or her subject matter as the film is made is essential to its development, and one of the keys to making films that engage an audience. This is why people who are the world’s greatest experts at, say, space flight, are the last people you want to make your space documentary. They probably know the material too well to make the subject accessible to the rest of us. If, as a filmmaker, you’re astonished by your discoveries, you’re the perfect person to share that astonishment with the audience.
Although I had lived in California for years, I still considered myself a Southerner, though my knowledge of Southern history was limited. Like most Americans, my first image of the antebellum South – genteel landowners, cavaliers on horseback, fluttering debutantes in hoop skirts and lavish plantation houses run by slaves who seemed to be part of the family – came from “Gone with the Wind.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about to make a documentary that would use this very film to turn that graceful Old South image inside out.
I contacted the most distinguished Southern authors and professors of Southern history I could find. Most said yes. A few thought speaking about their beloved field of study for a documentary that was in some way related to “Gone with the Wind” was beneath them and demurred.
With my list of about a dozen interviewees in hand, I sat down to map out our journey into the Deep South. The plan was to fly into New Orleans, rent a production van and drive across the Southern states, shooting interviews and scenics as we went. I would be traveling with my longtime cinematographer, Yoram Astrakhan, whose charismatic charm gives no hint of his background as a tank commander in the Israeli army (though if we got into a bar fight in Biloxi, I had no doubt this would come in handy). Also on the team would be Yoram’s favorite grip, Robert Consentino, a sweet Oregonian with the laidback air of a hippie and the work ethic of a longshoreman. Robert is possessed of the most amiable disposition imaginable. For a crew of filmmakers traveling together in a small production van across multiple states, that is no small thing.
Joining us for the New Orleans portion of the trip would be my wife and production company partner, Lulu. She had never been to New Orleans, and though I yearned to share with her my love for this unique city, I feared that as a vegetarian, she would surely starve to death in the land where even the vegetables (if they’re good) are enriched with delicious pig fat.
We flew into New Orleans on a Saturday. Our first shooting day was at Oak Alley Plantation in Vacherie, about 50 miles west of New Orleans on the historic Great River Road, now Louisiana Highway 18. This 25-acre antebellum estate was once owned by sugar-cane magnate Valcour Aime, the so-called “King of Sugar.” Oak Alley is one of the grandest of the surviving plantations thanks to the corridor of magnificent live oaks that give the estate its name. The early 18th century trees predate everything else on the property, forming a graceful, 800-foot-long corridor from the Mississippi River to the plantation house.
We would not be the first people to shoot at Oak Alley. It is Mary Astor’s house in “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” the governor’s mansion occupied by a Clintonesque John Travolta in “Primary Colors,” and it’s here that Matthew McConaughey finds the body of Dora Kelly Lange in HBO's “True Detective.”
Oak Alley Plantation’s tour guides are adorned in antebellum dresses right out of “Gone with the Wind,” with layers of taffeta and lace topping grand hoop skirts. In an irony that seemed lost on everyone but myself and my crew, the costumed tour guides on the days we visited included a sprinkling of young African-American women dressed like Scarlett O’Hara. For the women, I’m sure it was just a ready job, but to us, seeing them portray the part of someone who might have literally been slave master to their own ancestors was … well… unsettling.
We lined up scenic shots over the course of two days, capturing the moods of Oak Alley in the gentle light of dawn and the magic of twilight. If you can't shoot gorgeous b-roll in this place, you're in the wrong business.
Our first New Orleans interview was with John Berendt, whose book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” offered a portrait of Savannah so rich in detail it felt like a forbidden glimpse into a secret world. Berendt had taken an apartment at the edge of the French Quarter, where he intended to write a book as nuanced and revealing about New Orleans as “Midnight” had been about Savannah.
Berendt spoke entertainingly and with great affection for the city, its polyglot people and its rich history. The city’s rampant violence only seemed to intensify his love for it.
“It’s a very violent city,” he said. “There is a sense in the South, a tradition of pride and standing. … If there’s an argument, Southerners are likely to respond viscerally and physically.”
He pointed to an experiment performed at an American university that revealed a stark behavioral contrast between Southerners and Northerners.
“A big bruiser was walking down a hallway and he’s part of the test,” Berendt said, a twinkle in his eye. “He bumps into a white Southerner and cusses at him. The white Southerner pushes him back – immediate response. Same experiment: Bruiser walking down the hall bumps into a white Northerner, cusses him out. The Northerner backs off, goes, ‘It’s OK,’ moves on. No confrontation. No sense of his space being invaded. But in the South, something has triggered a reaction that is physical and has to do with pride, with protecting one’s area.”
Though Berendt didn’t draw a line from this behavior back to the Civil War, the inference was clear: Southerners retain a chip on their shoulder from being “invaded by the North.” After 150 years, the wound remains, if not fresh, at least not fully healed. Kathryn Stockett bristled when I discussed the theme of survival as being central to our documentary, the sense that despite General Sherman burning his way from Atlanta to the sea, Southerners found a way to survive.
“I’m not real fond of this term survival,” Stockett retorted. “Because if you still have a breath in your body, you are surviving. … You know, if your house wasn’t burned down in the Civil War in the South, it is the thing you are the most proud of. You kicked Sherman’s ass in some little way, because he didn’t burn your place down. You know, they were hard on us. The North … they suck. I’m sorry, I don’t have a whole lot of intelligent things to say about that.”
The fact that a sophisticated, educated woman like Stockett still reacted to the name of General Sherman with visible disgust surprised me. I asked her about the effect “Gone with the Wind,” with its rosy depiction of the antebellum era, had on her growing up. She struggled with it a bit, then said, “I think if any filmmaker can brainwash their audience like ‘Gone with the Wind’ does in such a beautiful and romantic way, they have achieved their goal. I mean it is truly magical that you actually think for a second, as a guilty white Southerner … wow, I wish those days still existed.”
I asked Stockett if Southerners still feel guilt, even today. Her response was immediate. “Yes. Southerners will feel guilty until the day they die. And if they don’t, they’re not Southerners.”
As my crew and I shot interviews, my wife Lulu traveled around New Orleans, scouting for scenic shots and absorbing the atmosphere. After a couple of days of this, she expressed astonishment at the statues and monuments to Confederate soldiers and generals. Why, she wanted to know, were there marble and stone tributes everywhere to the losers of a war, and not just a war, but a war fought to maintain slavery?
Having grown up in the South myself (despite what Kathryn Stockett said), I had never noticed this: These monuments were an accepted part of everyday life. But when I saw it through Lulu’s eyes – a Philly girl who had lived in California most of her life – I realized she was right. From that moment on, this became a question I asked everyone we interviewed: Why are these soldiers revered despite the fact that they fought on the wrong side of an unjust cause and lost the war?
Documentaries are living, breathing things, and Lulu’s reaction to these monuments illustrates the role that luck and happenstance play in the creation of a film. This question, which was to change the direction of the documentary, would never have occurred to me had she stayed home in Los Angeles. Had I read all the history books – had I been, in fact, a Southern historian already – I would surely have taken a more scholarly approach to the subject and my astonishment at Kathryn Stockett’s still-fresh hatred of General Sherman would never have happened. And it’s my reaction that is the key element. The job of a filmmaker is to filter all the raw materials of the documentary – the interviews, the scenic shots, the film clips, the stills – through himself as the storyteller, and then, using the techniques at his disposal – editing, narration, sound design, music – to tell the story as he sees it. No film worth watching was ever the product of how “the studio” saw it, or how “the network” saw it. On my wall is a favorite quote from Emerson:
Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact makes much impression on him, and another none… The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.
It is because I went into “Old South, New South” without already knowing the subject that I was able to testify of the particular ray that fell upon my eye.
Tulane University occupies 110 leafy acres in the Carrollton neighborhood of New Orleans, directly across from Audubon Park. We were here to interview author, Southern historian and professor Randy J. Sparks. As we arrived, the Louisiana skies opened and a biblical deluge drenched the campus, leaving the magnolias dripping warm water on us as we unloaded our gear. We set up our shot in a large classroom with raked auditorium seats serving as a backdrop to Professor Sparks.
Like Kathryn Stockett, Randy Sparks is a Mississippi native. Courteous and self-contained, he can nevertheless rise passionately to a subject that moves him.
Since speaking with Lulu, I had been chewing over the inappropriateness of Confederate monuments and feeling a little angry at myself for being blind to it all my life. Randy Sparks framed the topic in the context of the larger narrative created by Southerners after the war.
“Historians are fond of saying that the South lost the war, but won the peace,” Sparks said. “‘Gone with the Wind’ is a great example of how the South’s view of the antebellum period, the South’s view of the war, the South’s view of Reconstruction, the white South’s view became the prevailing national myth. That’s remarkable because there aren’t many cases in history where the losers write the history.
“White Southerners after the Civil War created the myth that the war was not fought over slavery. Before the war, white Southerners knew very well the war was fought over slavery. There was no question about that. It’s only after their defeat that white Southerners are able to create this prevailing myth that the war was not about slavery at all — that it was about states’ rights, for example. Now this continues to be a widely held, if not prevailing, view among many people, North and South. Southerners began to work almost immediately at rewriting that history and then perpetuating that history through historical societies, through novels, through religion. Almost every aspect of white Southern culture was set into motion around this enterprise and the monuments are the physical example of that effort.”
“Gone with the Wind” played its part in this. The film barely mentions slavery as a cause for the war. The looming conflict is introduced with dialogue like, “We’ve borne enough insults from the meddling Yankees,” delivered by Scarlett’s father, Gerald O’Hara. In the film’s main title, Mammy, Prissy and Pork are introduced as “the house servants.” No character is indicated to be a slave in the titles.
“Slavery really isn’t even a critical issue in the movie,” Kathryn Stockett observed. “You have these African-Americans that are working for these white families and it’s as if it’s just their job. It’s as if they just get a paycheck — like it’s something they chose to do.“
Of course, Gone with the Wind was never intended to be a true-to-life portrayal of the Old South. The filmmakers weren’t worrying about historical accuracy. They were trying not to disappoint the millions of fans of Margaret Mitchell’s book. And audiences weren’t looking for historical accuracy either – they just wanted to see Scarlett and Rhett brought to life on the big screen.
“Gone with the Wind” is also an historical film, and historical films often tell you more about the period in which they were made than the period they depict. When “Gone with the Wind” was released, it had been only 74 years since the end of the Civil War. Many Americans of that era knew someone who had fought in that war. At the film’s premiere in Atlanta on Dec. 15, 1939, a special contingent of surviving Confederate soldiers, stooped over and walking with canes, were honored guests.
As a filmmaker, I have nothing but admiration for what producer David O. Selznick, director Victor Fleming and their collaborators achieved. But somewhere along the line, “Gone with the Wind” morphed from being popular entertainment to becoming a history lesson on the Civil War for generations of Americans. A history lesson from a decidedly white Southern perspective.
The next day, with New Orleans in the can, I put Lulu on a plane back to California and joined my crew as we pointed our van east toward Atlanta, the center of the “Gone with the Wind” universe and arguably the beating heart of the South itself.
The drive from eastern Louisiana through Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia is a journey through pine forest, the scrubby trees of Louisiana giving way to taller, more majestic pines as you travel east and north toward Atlanta.
Our first interview in Georgia was to be with James C. Cobb, professor at the University of Georgia and a respected Southern historian. We set up in the Russell Reading Room of the Special Collections Library, a newly built facility with none of the charm of Georgia’s historic North Campus.
Jim Cobb, as he prefers to be known, has written widely about the South’s history, culture and identity. He embodies the sort of self-deprecating charm and humor one associates with a Southern gentleman. A Georgia native, he grew up in rural Hart County in the years after World War II. Meeting him, I felt I was in the presence of someone whose life’s work had come so naturally to him that he gave it no second thought. As a young man, had he dreamed of being a race car driver, a fighter pilot, a movie star? Perhaps, but what I saw was a man utterly comfortable in his world. He arrived a little rumpled in a black denim shirt, his longish gray hair askew. His attitude toward me was charming, but wary.
One of my first questions was about the monuments. Cobb rose to the challenge immediately.
“Now, it puts off a great many visitors from outside the region to see these statues to people who fought for a war to maintain slavery,” he said. “But that’s the reality of the South. I think that too many Southerners, black and white, get caught up in fighting over these things, and fighting about them is not getting us anywhere. It’s not bringing more jobs to the community, it’s not making our schools better. … I think the problem is, if you go and really start de-Confederatizing the South’s landscape, you quickly lose perspective on what the people who sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ had to overcome. And as generations pass, you can have all of the memorials you want to the Civil Rights movement, but if you don’t have any indication of the forces that made the Civil Rights Movement necessary, then it exists in a historical void.”
“By that logic,” I replied, “and I’m not comparing the South to Nazi Germany, but by that logic, modern-day Germans who eschew anything to do with Nazism would want to put up statues of Hitler, so everyone could see what they overcame.”
This was not a question on my well organized clipboard. The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them. I was aware the analogy was far from perfect, but something about Cobb’s blithe answer made me angry.
“Well,” he said, looking a little startled, “I don’t think many contemporary Germans have an ambition to create monuments to Hitler, where there really is a strong sentiment among a lot of white Southerners to have these Confederate monuments.”
We went around the subject a couple of times, but this was the extent of Cobb’s argument: In order to preserve the South’s history, it was important to have statues venerating Confederate leaders, whether or not their cause was just. The effect on African-Americans in today’s South being confronted with monuments to those who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved seemed to Cobb a matter not worthy of serious consideration.
Our Atlanta liaison, Jeanette, had arranged for my crew and I to shoot scenic shots at one of the region’s most historic homes. Let’s call it Heritage House. Heritage House is not a museum and is not open to the public. It’s a private home of historic significance, having hosted some of the South’s most illustrious figures over the past 170 years. The house predates the Civil War, and survived the conflict mostly intact. It has been restored to all its antebellum splendor, from the stately columns in front to its elegant gardens in rear. Its current owners, whom I’ll call Mister and Missus, were nothing but gracious to us when we arrived. Mister had a 3-wood in one hand and a tumbler of bourbon in the other. He held the bemused, slightly quizzical expression of a man whose life was a relaxed journey with an assured destination.
Missus was a lovely woman in her 40s whose manners bespoke her blue-blood Southern upbringing. Blonde and trim, you could see the cotillion girl she once was in every graceful movement and beguiling smile. As any Southern lady would, she offered us cold glasses of lemonade and iced tea.
Walking into Heritage House was like stepping into “Gone with the Wind.” While my crew brought in the cameras and equipment, Mister leaned his golf club against a doorjamb, put his hand on my shoulder and guided me down a hallway. There was something in his manner that said, “I know you’re the important one here, not those fellas bringing in the equipment.” I bristled at this, as if his affection was meant to somehow distance me from my crew and align the two of us.
Mister walked me past Heritage House’s crystal chandeliers, pre-war romantic paintings and the tea service once used by Stonewall Jackson. He tilted his bourbon toward an oval frame containing a yellowed photograph of a man in a tattered military uniform. “That is my wife’s great, great, great grandfather,” he said. “See that mark on his forehead? Got grazed by a bullet from one of Sherman’s men at the Battle of Buck Head Creek. Didn’t even slow the sumbitch down. Just kep’ on fighting.” He smiled with satisfaction.
The house was full of Confederate memorabilia, much of it directly connected to his or his wife’s family. In the living room Mister lifted his chin toward an old rifle above the fireplace. “That’s the gun my great, great, great grandfather built hisself to kill Yankees. Made a hickory from his own farm.” Mister’s pride that the blood in his veins came from these proud and noble Confederates was palpable. He practically glowed as he recounted the exploits of these chivalrous gentlemen of the Old South.
Heritage House exhales the breath of Dixie. Using our digital cameras, our high-tech lighting instruments and our jib crane, we attempted to capture that breath and bring it back alive.
As we packed up our gear in the waning afternoon light, running late for our magic-hour shoot in a local Civil War cemetery, Mister and Missus bid us farewell from the porch. Missus offered us more iced tea and lemonade for the road. Mister suggested that when we finished at the cemetery, we oughta drop by for a bourbon on the porch. We bade them farewell and rolled out of the long driveway back into the modern world.
As we drove away, Yoram, Robert and I all marveled at how gracious they had been and, at the same time, how warped the experience was by their unabashed – and apparently unexamined – love for all things Old South. I joked that as soon as we were gone, they would reenter the house and pull back a rug, revealing a trap door from which the slaves would emerge to resume their duties.
I struggled to understand why I felt so repulsed. And I realized it was this: To embrace the antebellum South, to take such pride in one’s roots in the Confederacy, requires having a blind spot to what made that gracious world of leisure possible — the enslavement of a people stolen from their continent and forced into human bondage. You have to ignore the fact that what your Confederate ancestors fought for, what they killed hundreds of thousands of their fellow Americans for, was to maintain a way of life literally built on the backs of slaves.
The disconnect between this unexamined nostalgia for the Old South – a nostalgia depicted nowhere more vividly than in “Gone with the Wind” – and the reality of what made that society possible became one of the themes of our documentary.
The Marietta Confederate Cemetery occupies a triangle of green earth at the intersection of Powder Springs Road and West Atlanta Street in the historic town of Marietta, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Atlanta. It’s a lovely place, shaded by oak and chestnut trees. I was kneeling in the damp grass, pushing a video camera along gleaming stainless steel tracks to capture a scenic dolly shot as the afternoon sunlight angled across the gravestones, sending off long shadows. Yoram and Robert were elsewhere in the cemetery, the three of us having split up, each with a camera in hand, to maximize the gorgeous afternoon light.
The scene would have been beautiful anyway, but this was Memorial Day, when each Confederate soldier’s grave is decorated with a small Confederate battle flag. Hundreds upon hundreds of flags fluttered in the spring breeze.
In the North Texas in which I grew up, the Confederate battle flag was common primarily in the back window of pickup trucks and hanging from the rafters of garages where my friends’ fathers worked on their El Caminos, sipping from cans of beer while Willie Nelson played on the radio. As a white Southerner, I never gave those flags a second thought. To me, they seemed nostalgic, like an antique Coca-Cola sign or a shelf of old pickling spices. My trip through the South cured me of those benign associations.
I was excited to interview David Goldfield, author of a fascinating look at Southern consciousness entitled “Still Fighting the Civil War.” This was one of the few books I had read as I prepared to make my film. Goldfield teaches history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has twice been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Born in Memphis, he grew up in Brooklyn. He refers to himself as a “Southern Yankee.”
With the image of all those little Confederate flags still fresh in my mind, I asked Goldfield about the effect this symbol has on blacks and whites in today’s South.
“The fact is,” he said, “the Confederate battle flag from the very beginning was associated with white supremacy and not only that, but the Confederate battle flag supported a country that was dedicated to the furtherance of African-American slavery. So for a black person, seeing this banner anywhere is an indication that they don’t want me. This is not part of my heritage. I don’t really belong here. It’s a flag of exclusion.
“And if you look after the Civil War, when Florida and Alabama made new flags, their flags, even to this very day, resemble the Confederate battle flag.”
In fact, the Georgia state flag for almost 50 years incorporated the Confederate battle flag until Gov. Roy Barnes led the push to eliminate it in 2001.
Georgian Jim Cobb endorsed the change. “I don’t think that a Confederate image should ever be part of an official state or municipal symbol, sanctioned by the state. If you walk in and every time you have to renew your driver’s license, you see a big state flag with a Confederate battle flag on it, that’s just plain not right. It’s over the top to try and impose that on other people.”
Not all Georgians feel that way. On a lunch break between interviews, our local liaison, Jeanette, suggested the OK Cafe. The place is an Atlanta institution serving big portions of solid, old-fashioned Southern food in a comfy, kitschy atmosphere. Biscuits and gravy, meat and three, good fried chicken, legit grits … it’s all here. As I tucked into my crab and crawfish cakes, I noticed a big Confederate battle flag on the wall amid all the kitsch. I leaned across the table and said to Jeanette, “Don’t you think seeing that flag on the wall would make African-Americans uncomfortable?”
“Oh honey,” Jeanette replied in her sweet Georgia-girl lilt, “you can make anything racial if you try hard enough.”
If, like many of her fellow Georgians, Jeanette could be blind to the divisive power of Confederate iconography, she was by no means a bigot. In fact, it was Jeanette who brought Miss Rubye to us.
Dr. Rubye J. Byrd grew up in the tiny town of Greenville, Ga. One of her ancestors was Papa Richard Carter, a purportedly seven-foot-tall Zulu abducted from Africa in 1808. Papa Richard was a witch doctor who was known to heal with herbs. He was also the town’s midwife, and delivered most of the babies in Greenville for decades. He became a man accorded great respect by his fellow townspeople, black and white.
Like her ancestor, Rubye Byrd exceeded expectations. She received her doctorate from Clark Atlanta University and served as Greenville’s mayor for 8 years. She went on to become a respected teacher and administrator at Morehouse College in Atlanta.
I asked Dr. Byrd about the effect seeing the Confederate battle flag has on young African-Americans.
“When they see the Confederate flag,” she said, “students get really upset about it. I try to tell them from a white standpoint, these people really believe in the old South. They really believe that they won the war and this is their land and their country and Northerners are nothing but carpetbaggers and scalawags that came down here and they still see them that way.
“I remember there was one white American young man that had this flag up and I heard some of the African-Americans saying that we are going to get him before we leave town. So I went to him … I said, ‘Do you realize what that flag means to them? Do you know what the Confederacy was to African-Americans? You were trying your best to maintain the institution of slavery. You did not want to give that up, as a people, so your flag says we still see you as three-fifths of a man. We still see the women as women that we can take whenever we want to. We still think you are not completely human.’ So he heard all that and he said, ‘You may be right, Dr. Byrd,’ and he took it down. But I tell you, in small-town America, those flags fly all the time.”
The image of the Confederate battle flag cast into stone was on display in Historic Oakland Cemetery, where I found myself shooting scenics the next day. Oakland Cemetery occupies a tall hill overlooking downtown Atlanta. Founded in 1850, it is the final resting place of significant Georgians black and white, from golf legend Bobby Jones to Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, to Margaret Mitchell, the Atlanta housewife turned Pulitzer Prize-winner whose thousand-page novel would frame the story of the antebellum South for generations to come.
We were here searching for shots that would juxtapose the Old South and the New South in the same frame. Standing on a rise in front of a row of grand headstones and monuments, we found our angle. With the camera on the jib crane, the shot began low, passing the tombstones, gradually rising past moss-covered trees to reveal the glittering skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta in the background, a perfect expression of the Old South and the New South. As the camera rose to its final position, a speeding Atlanta metro train emerged from a tunnel in the middle distance, perfectly punctuating our point. This shot would become the main title of “Old South, New South.”
As we drove through Atlanta traffic toward our next interview shoot, I chewed over what our interviewees had told us, trying to make sense of the dichotomy. If white Southerners feel guilty, as Kathryn Stockett said, why is there no region in the country remotely as proud of its history as the Deep South? How can modern Southerners revere a past that was built on the backs of slaves, remembering the Confederacy not with shame, but with a bone-deep sense of pride?
The answer, as it turns out, is that white Southerners take pride in a past that never existed.
“White Southerners created a myth called The Lost Cause,” David Goldfield enlightened me, “and in this Lost Cause they elevated the defeat that they had suffered at the hands of the Yankees in the Civil War into a noble effort where brave men, vastly outnumbered by Northern troops, hold fast for four difficult and deadly years to preserve their way of life. That they failed is not a reflection of their lack of glory and courage; they simply were overwhelmed. … All those statues and monuments are not erected in honor of losers; they are erected in honor of courage and heroism.”
Jim Cobb went even further, tying the creation of the myth of The Lost Cause to the post-war South’s efforts to reestablish white supremacy without the benefit of slavery. “When you are trying to use the past to justify what you are doing in the present,” he said, “you are naturally going to try to lay down a good, solid, historical foundation that shows you were a noble civilization from the beginning with worthy aims populated by admirable people. I mean, you look at the popularity of ‘Gone with the Wind’ all over the world … there’s an element in there that’s so seductive. It would have you believe that there could be these rich and powerful people with almost limitless power over their subjects who would never abuse that power, and the subjects who were exploited to create the wealth and sustain the power of their masters would never, for a second, resent it or hold a grudge, but would just maintain a basic contentment with their circumstances.”
According to Cobb, the seductive power of The Lost Cause gained traction as the South sank into poverty and despair in the years after the Civil War. “If you were a white Southerner, no matter if the bank had three notes on your place and you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from, you could sort of reach back in there and attach yourself to somebody who figured in that legend, who had been at the top of the heap. Then you had something, by golly … you couldn’t necessarily eat it, but it would make your hunger pangs a little less acute.”
In the New South, 150 years after the war, this feeling still burns in the hearts of many white Southerners, who feel their way of life was stolen from them by outsiders. “When a white Southerner of a certain era wakes up in the morning, it’s there,” Cobb said. “Losing the war was not the key factor. It was how you fought. You were defeated militarily, but you emerged morally superior to your conqueror.”
And suddenly the recent history of the South crystallized for me. From the resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to federal marshals forcing Gov. George Wallace to step aside so that black students might attend the University of Alabama, to the blood-red block of states that said “hell no” to Barack Obama in two elections, the answer remains the same. Outsiders are trying to impose their will on us Southerners.
It’s that damned Sherman all over again.
We wrapped production in Atlanta, and I prepared to return to California and my editing room. The experience of shooting “Old South, New South” had been the greatest learning experience of my professional life. It had truly been a journey of discovery, and my job now was to share this journey with audiences. What I discovered had made me in turns angry, perplexed and astonished. It was clear to me that the New South had failed to extricate itself from the chains of the Old South. White Southerners’ pride in their history depended upon a willful blindness to their real past and the invention of, and heartfelt belief in, a false one. If the South was ever to rise above its past, this would have to change. But as I now understood, no effort from outside the South can change Southerners. Change would have to come from within.
I remembered what Kathryn Stockett had said months before. She was right. I might be from Texas, but I was no Southerner. I had come into a foreign country when I flew down here. The world depicted in “Gone with the Wind,” I now understood, never existed. There was no doubt things in the New South had changed for the better; it was the things that hadn’t changed that disturbed me.
“We’re still a very discriminatory people,” Kathryn Stockett said, “and when you were raised to believe that people of color or really anyone that you consider foreign or different from you is inferior, that’s not really something that’s going to naturally change, even if the world around you is changing. I believe that whole generations are going to have to die before the South truly changes its way of thinking.”
But then she had given me a glimmer of hope. “You know, I’ve got a 10-year-old,” she said, “and she’s absolutely the most colorblind person I have ever met in my life. She doesn’t even say black, she doesn’t say African-American; she talks about it like it’s in the Crayola box. She says, ‘Oh she’s brown, she’s tan … she’s burnt sienna.”
I wanted to believe a New South free of the shackles of the old was possible. And if I allowed myself a bit of optimism, I could look at history as a guide. After all, the monumental changes the South had already seen might give a glimpse of the possibilities the future holds.
I remembered what Miss Rubye said.
“As an African-American in the South, I am very proud to be a Southerner. I say that to people and they say, ‘How can you be proud to be a Southerner? They had slavery.’ And I say there were a lot of good ones in there that helped us get from Point A to Point B and now we are family. We tend to get along better than people from other regions, African-Americans and white Americans.”
Her dark eyes sparkled as she turned her attention back down the centuries to her forebears stacked like cordwood on a tossing slave ship.
“If my ancestors who were on that boat could see me now and realize the whole struggle of almost 400 years of slavery and where we are today, they would probably say, ‘Hallelujah and thank you, lord!’ That after a while this has happened to this young woman who is Papa Richard’s great-great grandchild, they could do nothing but say, ‘Thank you, lord,’ because it was quite a struggle.”