This menu of film selected curated by the Media Resources Center brings together films set throughout the American South and offers a hearty mélange of both documentary and fictional narrative. Begin with a quirky short focused on crustaceans and the culture surrounding them in Savannah, Georgia. Then move to Mississippi for a couple of fictional feature films where food and cooking serve as both a unifier for disparate communities and an empowerment vehicle for individuals finding their voice in the face of harassment. No menu of southern food films would be complete without work by Stan Woodward. This selection ends with documentaries directed by Woodward that center on food and food cultures in the South.
APPETIZER: The Shrimp
Directed by Keith Wilson, 2010. (MRC DVD14417)
Seafood has long been an important source of sustenance and income for folks living along the Southern US coastline. This fifteen-minute short film follows a tiny southern shrimp from sea to salver to sewer to sea again. Along the way, the film quietly comments on local economies and cultural divides loosely surrounding the commercial shrimping market in Savannah, Georgia. (WFM)
ENTRÉE: The Help
Directed by Tate Taylor, 2011. (MRC DVD 13822)
Based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, The Help delves into the complicated interplay of race, class, and gender in Civil Rights-era Mississippi. After graduating from the University of Mississippi, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, returns home to Jackson to discover that all that awaits her are family and friends who expect her to get married and settle down. Quickly disillusioned by these expectations and by the abrupt “disappearance” of her childhood maid and caretaker, Skeeter turns to Aibileen Clark, the black maid who works for her friend Elizabeth Leefolt, for answers about what life is really like for “the help.” Aibileen resists talking to Skeeter at first, knowing the risks to her own life and livelihood, but soon convinces herself and her strong, sassy friend, Minny Jackson, that sharing their stories could be a force for change. They eventually get many of the black women in town to describe the uncivil treatment they’ve received while cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children of the white families for whom they work.
Several of the relationships and stories in the film are closely tied to food and cooking. Food also plays an important role in building community between many of the characters as well as serving as a vehicle for self-empowerment. Minny’s tale about feeding her proud, hateful employer a very special pie and threat to tell the town the full pie story serves as insurance for all the maids against retaliation by their white employers for sharing their stories with Skeeter. Minny also empowers her newest employer, Celia Foote, by teaching her how to cook. Celia is a naïve but genuinely kind woman who doesn’t know how to navigate the social and racial stratification of the south. She shares her meals with Minny, as well as her deepest fears about her marriage, and as a result of Minny’s friendship and cooking lessons, Celia finds the self-confidence she needs to form new bonds in her rocky relationship with her husband. Octavia Spencer won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2011 for her role as Minny Jackson. Also starring Viola Davis, Emma Stone, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney, Sissy Spacek, and Mary Steenburgen. (KA)
Directed by Adrienne Shelly, 2007. (MRC DVD 5339)
What better way to celebrate Thanksgiving than with a film about PIE?? Set in “a carefully imagined semi-mythical realm” (A.O. Scott, NY Times) somewhere in the deep South, this quirky film stars Keri Russell as Jenna Hunterson, a diner waitress who finds respite from a life in which she feels trapped by baking incredibly creative and delicious pies. Having recently discovered she is carrying the child of the abusive husband she desperately wants to leave, Jenna focuses more intensely on her escape plan – winning the $25,000 grand prize at a local pie-making competition. Along the way, she engages in a romantic entanglement with her obstetrician, and helps her fellow waitresses (and only two friends) navigate their own complicated relationships. With the encouragement of her friends and some support from the cranky but loveable diner owner, Joe – played by North Carolina’s own Andy Griffith – Jenna is able to start anew and fully enjoy the sweeter side of life. Also starring Jeremy Sisto, Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Shelly, and Nathan Fillion. (KA)
ENCORE: Stan Woodward
Stan Woodward began making documentary films in the 1960s and he turned his eye specifically to the south in 1973, when he began filming in South Carolina. Over the course of his career, he has documented southern folk heritage traditions and cultures that remain of vital importance to the study of the American South, its history, folklore and traditions. When he retired in 2012, he began the process of donating his documentary collection to our own Southern Folklife Collection at Wilson Library. Look to this list to discover a few of his films presenting Brunswick Stew in Georgia, Barbeque in South Carolina, and other regional foods in Virginia, North Carolina and Kentucky.
For more on films depicting food in the south, check out this UNC library finding aid. And, in case you need just a tiny morsel more – watch this 2-minute piece on the “caviar of the south”—the irreplaceable boiled peanut.