Constructing Cultural Memory: The Cinematic Legacies of the Old South Open Access

Greene, Elizabeth (Spring 2021)

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Since the birth of Hollywood, films have been a site for understanding the past. Audiences are swept up into sweeping period romances, grueling depictions of past wars, or the ordinary lives of famous historical figures. Films can be gateways to the past, transporting audiences to periods decades or centuries removed from the present. In doing so, films contribute to collective cultural memory, or a shared understanding of the past. But how does Hollywood choose to represent the past? What gets remembered and what gets forgotten? Previous scholarship on memory and film suggests that film can be a site of negotiation, where traditional historical narratives can be reasserted or challenged. Further, films about the past contribute not only to cultural memory but also to the creation of shared cultural identity. Therefore, films about the past have consequences outside the theater, affecting how we understand our history and how we reckon with the present. In this thesis, I aim to explore how Hollywood has treated films about the Antebellum Southern states, or the “Old South.” The Old South is noteworthy because representations of this period have transformed over the past century. Audiences in the 1930s delighted in plantation romances such as Gone with the Wind (1939), but audiences today bear witness to the cruel realities of plantation life in films such as 12 Years a Slave (2013). I will examine three different films to evaluate how Hollywood’s conception of the Old South has—and has not—changed. I argue that film was, and still is, a critical mechanism for the creation of cultural memory and cultural identity. Across three distinct periods, films about the Old South have contributed to cultural memory about the Antebellum period. By examining these films, I seek to understand how reconstructions of the past have changed over time—if they have changed much at all. Using a sociocultural approach, I will examine the cultural context of my selected films reflect on how cultural context shaped the films and their reception. By situating my work in the framework of memory studies, I seek to assess how Hollywood uses film as a mechanism for producing memories and constructing history.

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Distracting with Romanticism in Jezebel........13

Chapter 2. Mandingo’s Violent, Complicated Truths........33

Chapter 3. 12 Years a Slave and Foregrounding the Enslaved Experience.......58



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