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Sweet Home Alabama and Racism as Romantic Comedy
Everybody in this romcom would vote for Trump.
Hollywood’s most famous depictions of the post-Confederate South—Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With The Wind (1940)—are vicious, and viscerally racist, white supremacist propaganda. In comparison, the 2002 film Sweet Home Alabama can seem like a relief. The movie is an innocuous romcom; it features some cute bickering, but no outright hate. Over the course of a century, Hollywood really did change.
Well, sort of. Which also means, not really.
The plot of Sweet Home Alabama nestles comfortably into romance narrative conventions. Melanie (Reese Witherspoon) is an up-and-coming fashion designer in New York, dating the son of the mayor, Andrew (Patrick Dempsey). When Andrew asks her to marry him, she is thrilled—but also thrown for a loop. She’s already got a husband, her childhood sweetheart, Jake (Josh Lucas), who’s been stalling on signing the divorce papers. Melanie returns to her small town home to get Josh to release her from their marriage. While there, she has to confront her own snobbery—and her lingering feelings for her ex.
As the summary indicates, Sweet Home Alabama’s social tensions are centered on region—North/South. To a lesser extent, these are mapped onto class; Andrew is very wealthy, and Jake is less so (or appears to be less so.)
Race, on the other hand, never comes up. White Northerners make white Southerners feel like second class citizens. White rich people condescend to white poor people. But no one oppresses Black people or appears to be aware that the oppression of Black people has ever occurred.
That’s only possible because the movie almost entirely eliminates Black people from the landscape of the South. The one Black character with a name part is Frederick (Nathan Lee Graham), Melanie’s flamboyant fashion mentor. In the South, the only Black people we see are enthusiastically smiling servants on Bobby Ray’s plantation. The genocide ardently wished for in Birth of a Nation is here presented as de facto accomplished; racism is purged from the South because there’s no one (save for those one or two happy, happy servants) to be racist at.
The purge of animus encompasses not just the present but, inevitably, the past as well. Melanie’s father Earl (Fred Ward) is obsessed with Civil War reenactments and he spends much of his screentime in uniform grey. In one scene late in the film, Mel has to find her father among the reenactors, and the sea of prone bodies sits up to help her out—then collapses again into good-natured mortality cosplay.
He film does not mention what cause exactly all those old soldiers died for, nor what cause, implicitly, the reenactors are celebrating. Earl does not make invidious comments about Black people. No one connects his hobby to a history of racist violence—not even (or perhaps especially not) Frederick.
The movie doesn’t express overt racism. But its implicit whitewashing of Southern history fits neatly into very racist neo-Confederate myths. White supremacist historians like Woodrow Wilson presented the Civil War as a conflict between an imperial Northern aggressor and a gallant South fighting for honor and their way of life. They too delicately, or not so delicately, removed slavery from history, the better to obscure the violence on which that way of life rested.
The potential problem here can perhaps be framed as a question. What would Earl, and Mel, and Jake do if Black people suggested that the town remove Confederate statues—or stop its valorizing, celebratory Confederate reenactments? Would they acknowledge past harms done and try to repair them? Or would they try to pretend Black people don’t exist and aren’t part of their community? When the Mayor insults her mother, Mel punches her. That’s a joke. But what if other outsiders (are they outsiders?) questioned her ancestors? What kind of violence would be justified?
The insistence on white innocence, and the cheerful portrayal of community and history as the sole property of white people, is as insidious in its way as the more direct racism of Hollywood past. In fact, it is that more direct racism, with a smile and a shrug plastered over it, the better to excuse and perpetuate it for a different era. Sweet Home Alabama is an extended brief for the righteousness of Southern white grievance—and a plea to white people everywhere to return, spirituality and emotionally, to the true, white, monochrome small town America that is their birthright.
Sweet Home Alabama is quite old itself now; it came out more than 20 years ago. It would be nice to believe that such a film couldn’t be made today, post Charlottesville, just as it was nice to believe in 2002 that post Civil Rights Movement, Gone With the Wind was a thing of the past. But have we really gotten to a better place? Those Confederate war dead are hard to kill. They keep sitting up, dusting themselves off, and laughing.
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