And Then God Created the South
by ALEXIS OKEOWO
I’m far from an authentic Alabamian. I don’t have a Southern accent; I can’t make enormous meals of pulled pork and barbecue, nor deep-fry anything, nor brew ice tea; and I tend not to romanticize the Civil War, unlike some of my Confederate flag-bearing high school classmates. But I did spend all of my childhood and young adulthood in the Deep South, that weary strip of bright green grass, orange powdered back roads, and confused, segregated cities. It's a place that is difficult and generous and slow and rough but, still, it's mine.
I had always felt indifferent about Alabama, where my parents had met as international students, and where we had moved back as a family when I was eight, after stints in Texas and Tennessee. But it was a state – the beautiful weather, the friendly people – that felt mostly easy and comfortable. It wasn’t until I moved to the East Coast for college, confronted by friends from New England and California who were surprised the police hadn’t water hosed me in the streets and that I had been allowed to go to an integrated school, did I become defensive of the South. (A male alumnus once came up to talk to me at a bar, and, upon learning that I am from Alabama, asked me, “How are you not an idiot?”) And it wasn’t until my home region was attacked, often by idiots like the one just mentioned, did I begin to feel proud of its resilience. So when the television series version of the film Friday Night Lights first appeared five years ago, I was nervous.
The original movie had been an uncomfortable freak show with a heart of gold, every Southern stereotype heightened to the point of garishness. The town was hopelessly small; the adults charmingly single-minded; and the black players menacingly brutish or silent. What it did get right was its portrayal of the internal baggage nearly all of the players had, as they tried to be kids with the eyes of the town on them, watching, waiting, and forever expecting.
But on television, the scene was swiftly laid in a Texan village named Dillon that was not bleak or simple; it was just a little peculiar and obsessed with football. The kids went to small-time strip clubs (or danced at small-time strip clubs), drove around in pickup trucks, and drank beer and talked shit. And football games – football games were like prom each and every fall Friday night until the end of time. The girls always had their hair, makeup, and outfits together even if they were hanging in someone's trailer, so anxious was their desire to be noticed. I once agonized over what to wear to a gathering at the local Super Wal-Mart.
The episodes prompted flashbacks to my own delirious beginnings at an Alabama public high school. Boys who wore t-shirts emblazoned with Confederate flags and who were both polite and obnoxious; my brilliant friend who wanted to be a preacher and lived across from a barn where a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan met; and the sudden presence of fun and catty girl cliques that were racially divided but got along wonderfully. As I progressed through the first season, and then all of the rest, the characters began to feel human and relatable.
There is, and has always been, a difference between the way in which the Deep South is portrayed and the way in which it actually feels to live there. To breach this gap, television shows and films have often relied on the pastime of football as Universal Unifier; football as a path of salvation for the downtrodden of the Bible Belt. Friday Night Lights fell into this trap, too. Football does mean a lot of things for a lot of people – a way to be popular and get girls, a way to escape darker realities and channel your energy, a ticket out of town, a very good time – but salvation it’s not, even as we got swept up by our teams, taking pride in them as we built up and then cast away their adolescent heroes.
The show was melodramatic, but necessarily so. I constantly thought high school in Alabama was over the top. Navigating the girl clique terrain was difficult. I desperately needed girlfriends, to strut through the mall with and ward off the catcalls of boys and also to have my back in mini-gossip wars. My refusal not to wholeheartedly join the black or the white clique resulted in a whole lot of confusion for everyone involved.
Negotiating with conservative friends was difficult. After September 11th, a boy accused me of supporting terrorists when I questioned the logic of invading Afghanistan. Figuring out my social life was difficult. I traipsed through most of the South with my speech and debate team to compete in addictive tournaments, but I was doubtful that it was an activity that impressed my crush, a boy in the grade below mine. So I joined the cheer quad for the soccer team, on which he played. When I found out that he was sleeping with someone else, however, I returned back to extemporaneous speaking practices with a kind of relief.
Figuring out hillbillies was difficult. One afternoon I stopped at a gas station near my house to fill up my dad’s minivan and walked in front of two white men sitting in a pickup truck, cigarettes dangling from their mouths and straw hats planted on their heads. They stopped talking and watched me with huge grins, mockingly, until I went inside the shop; the tension was made heavier by my sense that they had called out a name I hadn't heard. And balancing on the racial line was difficult. When I belonged to a Girl Scout troop, I shared baths and sleeping bags with my white friends, much to the disappointment of our troop leader, who kept trying to pair me off with the other black girl in the group.
Despite having figured out a lot about the region, when some people learn that I am Southern, they ask me to prove it. If I have drunk enough or am in a good enough mood, I’ll oblige and speak in a convincing slow drawl or say “y’all,” and I’ll end up feeling like the embodiment of the television show Treme – sounding alright, but not really feeling right. And superficiality is sometimes fine! It can be fun to embellish a place if you know what you’re talking about. I’ve now realized that Treme doesn’t.
Like a lot of people, I awaited the premiere of Treme with eager anticipation. After capturing a side of Baltimore so elegantly, I assumed that writer David Simon would be able to portray a stage of New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina that was honest and compelling. The ingredients were all there: musicians with addiction and love problems, families with loved ones missing after the storm, and normal people trying to adjust to a drastically altered city. I was even fine with the fact that the show was starting off slow – so, so slow – but there is a difference between a slowly developing storyline, which should be employed carefully, and style filling in for an actual plot.
New Orleans’ musical tradition is soulful and complex, and its relationship to the city's triumphs and heartbreak deserves exploration. The extent to which the series exploits that tradition without further analysis, through extended scenes of live music or musicians talking about some gig or the other, is disappointing. For most of the first season, I wondered if I had somehow not known that there was a parade or festival for every week of the year in Louisiana. I would have urged my parents to take my brothers and I on more family trips there. All of the flash rubs irritatingly against the substance.
Instead of the way in which the characters of Friday Night Lights felt familiar yet unpredictable, these ones just seem boring. John Goodman’s protagonist from the first season is a man furious and hurt by the government’s neglect of New Orleans during and after Katrina, but the roots of his rage are undefined, and we’re left with a conspiracy theorist who puts up kooky videos on the Internet. An astoundingly annoying musician, played by Steve Zahn, is self-righteous and pretentious, supposedly a native who wants to take his city back, but all of his preaching about an authentic and mythical New Orleans rings trite.
Wendell Pierce from The Wire as a womanizing, hard-partying trombone player is delightful, but the only reason I stuck through the first season and part of the second was Khandi Alexander, who acted the hell out of a woman who was trying to find her brother, an inmate who disappeared in the storm. It’s as if the show’s creators don’t want to show the ordinary nuances of a place that isn’t so different from the rest of the country because they fear that they will lose the interest of an audience that wants to see gumbo and jazz on the screen all the time. Southerners joke among ourselves that the South may as well as be another country sometimes, but you don’t need a passport to go to Louisiana yet.
The South will continue to move at its own pace, and it’s really not that much worse than the race and class tensions present in the North. That sounds like a cop out, I know. I have a friend from high school who now lives in Boston and who became angry a few years ago when I told her that I hadn’t voted in Alabama’s local elections or in its national primaries. I didn’t understand her anger, at first. I haven’t lived in Alabama full-time since I left for college. Then I realized her frustration at the puzzle of a closed off and conservative state managing to produce open and smart people, who mostly either left it or didn’t do anything to try to change it from within. I realized that even if we renounce that godforsaken place, it’s still ours.
Alexis Okeowo is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about her favorite novels. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find an archive of her writing at The New Yorker here. You can find her website here. She twitters here.
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