It took two major series of events for Hollywood’s moviemakers to begin looking to the Southeast to produce big-budget films.
The first was the advent of electrical air conditioning units invented in 1902 by Willis Carrier, a native of Angola, N.Y. The introduction of residential electrical air conditioning units during the 1920s was a primary reason the U.S. population slowly began shifting from the North to the South.
According to the 1950 U.S. Census, no Southern state ranked among the Top 5 in population. North Carolina topped the Southern states at No. 10 and was followed by Georgia 13, Tennessee 15 and Alabama 17.
In 1970, there were still no Southern states in the Top 5. Florida was the first Southern state at No. 9, followed by North Carolina 12, Virginia 14, Georgia 15, Tennessee 17 and Alabama 21.
In 1990, Florida became the first Southern state to break into the Top 5 at No. 4. It was followed by North Carolina 10, Georgia 11, Virginia 12, Tennessee 17 and Alabama 22.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the migration continued from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt as three Southern states were among the Top 10 for the first time as Florida was No. 4, Georgia No. 9 and North Carolina No. 10. Following closely behind were Virginia at 12 and Tennessee at 17.
As the Southeast grew, so did the number of movies using the region as its venue. According to a list compiled by Wikipedia, there were seven movies made about the South during the decade of the 1920s. That total ballooned to 68 during the decade of the 2000s.
The second series of events, which got moviemakers to show interest in the area, was the beginning of the modern civil rights movement.
The first event was the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan., a landmark Supreme Court case in which the Court by a 9-0 vote on May 17, 1954, determined that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. A major victory for the civil rights movement, the ruling paved the way for integration.
The plaintiffs, 13 Topeka parents for their 20 children, believed the system of racial separation, while masquerading as providing separate but equal treatment for both white and black students, instead perpetuated inferior accommodations, services and treatment for blacks. Racial segregation in education varied widely from the 17 states that required racial segregation to the 16 that prohibited it.
The case for the plaintiffs was argued by Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the NAACP who became the first black named to the Supreme Court in August 1967. He served on the court for 24 years before retiring.
The second event was the Montgomery, Ala., City Line Bus incident involving 42-year-old Rosa Parks, a seamstress, who was returning home from her job on Dec. 1, 1955. Parks refused an order by the bus driver to relinquish her seat in the black section of the bus to a white passenger on the segregated bus system. Parks was arrested for her refusal to follow the order, eliciting a strong reaction from black leaders in Montgomery, who had been waiting for the right incident to launch a protest.
The incident and Parks’ ensuing arrest and conviction initiated a one-year boycott by Montgomery’s black residents of the bus line, which generated national attention. The boycott resulted in the Supreme Court’s decision in December 1956 that segregation on city buses was illegal. Three days following the decision, Montgomery desegregated its bus system.
Since those events, Hollywood has generated movie after movie on segregation, the modern civil rights movement and race relations.
Several movies about the South have captured the Academy Award for best picture including “Gone With the Wind” in 1939, “All the King’s Men” in 1949, “All About Eve” in 1950, “In the Heat of the Night” in 1967, “Terms of Endearment” in 1983, “Driving Miss Daisey” in 1989 and “Forrest Gump” in 1994.
Among this nation’s greatest actors who captured Oscars for their performances in a Southern film were Broderick Crawford, “All the King’s Men,” 1949; Gregory Peck, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” 1962; Rod Steiger, “In the Heat of the Night,” 1967, and Tom Hanks, “Forrest Gump,” 1994.
This was the second of two consecutive Oscars for Hanks. He also received the accolade for “Philadelphia” in 1993.
Among the actresses winning an Oscar for southern-themed movies were Vivien Leigh, “Gone With the Wind,” 1939; Joanne Woodward, “The Three Faces of Eve,” 1957; Patricia Neal, “Hud,” 1963; Sally Field, “Norma Rae,” 1979; Sissy Spacek, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” 1980; Shirley MacLaine, “Terms of Endearment,” 1983: Jessica Tandy, “Driving Miss Daisy,” 1989; Charlize Theron, “Monster,” 2003; Reese Witherspoon, “Walk the Line,” 2005, and Sandra Bullock, “The Blind Side,” 2009.
Leigh won a second Oscar in 1951 for “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Field earned a second Oscar in 1984 for her performance in “Places in the Heart.”
Barry Levine writes about pop music and movies for The Albany Herald. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.