September 24, 2020

The most Mississippi movie

Of all the movies about Mississippi, which best capture and depict the state’s essence?

I stole the idea from New York, which recently held a contest to pick one such movie for the city. Mississippi has quite a wealth of its own from which to choose, going back to 1914 and “Gentleman From Mississippi.”

Most of them I’m not familiar with, which is why I turned to an expert for help: Ward Emling, who recently retired after 30 years as the director of the Mississippi Film Office and 40-odd years total in the film business.

“I am familiar with and have seen pretty much every film shot in Mississippi,” he told me.

We settled on the criteria: feature films only; and only those both shot in and set in Mississippi. That ruled out more than a few.

“In 2014, we have three or four that were set in Texas,” he said. “‘Same Kind Of Different as Me,’ which comes out next month, is set in Texas and Louisiana and we shot the whole thing in the Metro Jackson area.”

I didn’t want to put Emling on the spot to name a single film he would nominate, partly because I knew that when my friend and former colleague Billy Watkins at The Clarion-Ledger wrote about his retirement, Emling gave him a Top 10 that included 16.

I asked for five. He gave me six, which, all things considered, seems pretty reasonable. With his comments they are, in no particular order:

“My Dog Skip”: “Wow. Willie Morris growing up in a small town with a dog that plays football, drives a car, and steals our hearts: proof to the world of what we all already knew.”

“Cookie’s Fortune”: “A sweet, eccentric, and rich tale of small town life. It captures everything that is great about Mississippi.”

“Mississippi Burning”: “A huge artistic triumph on every level: script, acting, cinematography. Visceral, shocking, and compelling.”

“The Help”: “Mississippians Tate Taylor and Brunson Green bring Katherine Stockett’s novel home and prove once more that we can tell a story and that film, and film people, can have enormous impact on a place.”

“A Time to Kill”: “Our first big Hollywood movie, a near perfect production experience, and a perfect marriage of community (Canton) and production.”

“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”: “‘The Odyssey’ set to music in Depression-era Mississippi! Unforgettable.”

“For so many reasons on so many levels, ‘My Dog Skip’ might be the one I like the best,” he said, “but it is as much personal as anything else; and all of these have a strong reaction from me.”

“There are people who don’t much care for ‘The Help,’ but the directing and performances are superb; there are people who don’t like ‘A Time To Kill,’ but again the direction, performances, and adaptation are almost perfect.”

As it happens, I’m one of those who don’t care much for “The Help,” because I don’t relate to a life with servants. And while I very much love “O Brother,” I don’t get the sense that it speaks Mississippi. (To my wife, it speaks George Clooney.)

But that’s what lists like this are for, to get people to do their own thinking on the topic. Which movies would you pick?

Joe Rogers worked for The Clarion-Ledger, The Tennessean and The New York Times. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com or on Twitter @jrogink.