12-4 JM Column

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 6, 2004

Don’t consider this the definitive piece on Hollywood and Alabama; rather, consider it the opening to what I believe is an essential discussion.

Quick. Name three Hollywood-produced movies that depict Alabamians and their way of life. Here’s what I came up with:

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

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“My Cousin Vinny”

“Sweet Home Alabama”

For the sake of semi-intelligent discussion, I must substitute that last title because I don’t get conned into chic-flicks very often. (In other words, I haven’t yet seen Reese Witherspoon’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”)

Instead, I’ll use a made-for-TV movie about the life of George Wallace as my third example.

If you’ve seen any of those movies, consider some of the parallels of each, and start with the classic book-turned-movie, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

As we all learned from grade-school reading, “To Kill a Mockingbird” deals with the racial turmoil of the early 20th Century. It tells the kindest story of a white man trying to save a black man’s life.

Yes, there are sympathetic characters throughout the movie, but Alabamians — as a whole — are depicted as tobacco-chewing, race-obsessed idiots.

Move to the current generation of Hollywood producers and recall the Oscar-winning “My Cousin Vinny.” For those who haven’t seen the movie — few of you, I hope — two young men drive through Alabama on their way to Florida and they are wrongfully accused of a murder.

While the movie ranks right up there as one of my all-time favorites, I’ve always been struck by the way Alabamians are characterized. Apparently, we have all gotten stuck in the mud (OK, we’ll concede that point). However, the movie also paints us as having a backwards legal system and a compulsive desire to somehow defeat every Yankee that crosses the state line.

A few years ago, Hollywood produced a movie on the life of George Wallace and, while Wallace made plenty of bone-head political moves, Alabamians were once again typified as people who can’t get past the color barrier.

If you think I’m over-analyzing the picture Hollywood paints of Alabama, consider something a national broadcaster said earlier this week.

On Wednesday night, NBC’s Tom Brokaw anchored his final “Nightly News.” Brian Williams replaced Brokaw in the chair and, in an interview with the Associated Press earlier this week, Williams unintentionally proved the importance of Hollywood’s influence over America.

In answer to a question about the risqu/ “Desperate Housewives” program on ABC, Williams said those shows shape this country.

“People report breathtakingly about how cultural issues were important in this past election,” Williams told the Associated Press. “Well, I could have told you that. That’s my kitchen. That’s what we talk about.”

To bring the point back home, the way Alabama is depicted in theaters and on TV sets really does matter. As Williams said, “That’s all we talk about.”

So why bring up this discussion, and why bring it up now?

This weekend, the city of Demopolis hosted more out-of-town visitors than we will at any other event during the year. Some folks will come from all parts of Alabama, while others will cross our state borders to attend.

What will tourists from other states think about Alabama when they arrive?

Will they see us burning crosses in open fields? Of course not.

Will they hear us talking unintelligibly? No.

Will they encounter members of a backwards law enforcement? Absolutely not.

So why do Hollywood producers continue their depictions of Alabama as the laughingstock of the nation?

I can’t answer that question, but I can tell you that we must find a way to change the trend. Elected officials in Montgomery have invested a great deal of time and money in the repair of Alabama’s rural regions — the Black Belt in particular. Most anyone affiliated with the plans to bring progress to the region understand that two things must improve: jobs and education.

So long as Alabama remains the mule of the nation, strong educators won’t blink on Interstate 20 when they pass through our state. And so long as we’re characterized as race mongers, new business and industry will need more than a tax incentive to stop here.

We’ve got to change the perception America has of us. What can you do to help?