As most writers will attest, truth is stranger than fiction — always. That was certainly evident last week during the Nashville Film Festival. As if borrowing eyes from Alice, what seems clear, solid and sensible one moment can morph and devolve into absurdity the next.
That seemed to be the experience of many filmgoers who clamored to see a documentary called Southern Belle, which premiered
at the festival.
The film offers a glimpse of a weeklong camp in Columbia, Tenn., in a program where young women are given the opportunity to relive the summer of 1861. All giggles and excitement, the girls dress in beautiful gowns of the period and are required to stay in costume for the duration. They endeavor to “act like ladies”; this includes learning to hold a teacup, a conversation and the attentions of a man.
I know both of the film’s award-winning Nashville producers, Kathy Conkwright and Mary Makley. Listening to the theatergoers at the post-screening party, many in attendance seemed to agree their film was visually appealing, well edited, fascinating — and, depending on one’s perspective, either deeply disturbing or darned delightful. There didn’t seem to be any in between.
Given the recent and highly publicized controversy over Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Confederacy celebration — during which slavery was never mentioned — the varied responses to Southern Belle are not surprising. We are still uncomfortable with slavery.
In one of the first scenes, we witness the girls receiving a “history lesson” given by a man dressed in full-length ministerial garb. Playing 19th century educator the Rev. Franklin Gillette Smith, the founder of what was considered a progressive program at the time, he conveys the “events of the day” to wide-eyed young women and explains that there is a movement afoot to rid the South of all forms of slavery — something for which the South is “unfairly” being blamed. He explains that inequitable taxation is the primary reason Tennessee has seceded from the Union, and there is barely a hinting at slavery.
Smith proceeds to ask the young ladies if anyone remembers what it says in the Bible about being a slave. The answer is matter of fact: “The Bible instructs us that we are to obey our masters.” And in an equally straightforward follow up: There were actually a “greater percentage of Negro slave owners than not.” No questions, no objections.
Smith also informs the class that “blackness and whiteness” will not be mentioned in the weeklong program, although he does clarify that the girls are responsible for doing everything for themselves — including getting themselves dressed, which is “something their slaves would have done for them during that time.”
The film, much like the program it documents, is a mirror that — depending on the perspective of the viewer — either reflects a distorted view of history that glosses over the oppression and brutalization of African people for the good of the South, or the “good old days” when petticoats, curtsying and knowing how to keep your voice from being shrill were imperative to white female survival.
It was fascinating to observe the collision of worldviews after the lights came up. Although the filmmakers’ intent was to create a documentary that would inspire discussion, there was a scheduling hitch that limited the amount of Q&A time. Conflicting emotions and complex questions hung in the air — many unspoken — and then the audience was ushered to the VIP tent for a celebration.
The young women featured in the film attended the premiere in period costume. Gliding across the theater were beautiful Southern belles in massive hoop skirts
dodging theatergoers in good humor at the spectacle of loveliness.
And then it happened. As the party began, there was a line forming for another screening in a nearby theater. It might as well have been in slow motion, for it was certainly dramatic. First a pair of boots, then the jeans and finally out stepped a striking African-American man in western boots and a straw cowboy hat. His face registered disorientation — or perhaps it was the lucid moment morphing into absurdity.
It was actor and director Mario Van Peebles. Following him were several African-American cast and crewmembers from his new film, Black, White & Blue. Whether he was startled or amused, without a word — I was told — he retreated back inside.
Yes, truth is always stranger than fiction.
Secours is a writer/filmmaker/speaker and co-host of “Freestyle” on WFSK-88.1FM. Visit her at www.mollysecours.com.