Even though South takes place almost exclusively in the town of Jasper, Texas, focusing on the horrific murder of a black man, there is no denying that there is a universality to the portrayal of the many different locales throughout the film. The audience is shown a cross section of this Southern community in parts, never using anything too specific to Jasper but dealing in the universal iconography of cars, forests, churches, stores, and other such commonplace signifiers.
Akerman’s style is as unmistakeable as ever, subtly shaping the viewer’s perception of the setting. Predominately, static shots are used, often of individuals dwarfed by their surroundings. Even in shots that appear to be in the countryside, cars can be frequently heard and seen, serving as a connecting device between these disparate locations. This is taken to a further extent with the extended tracking shots taken from a car, patiently observing as the buildings change, get more crowded or more separated, or disappear altogether, as people drive by and frequently wave to the camera.
These two signature Akerman techniques are contrasted with the interviews and the pivotal church scene. The interviews are perhaps the both the most political and the most intimate passages in South, putting side by side the personal, passionate recollections of black people which detail racism from both the 1960s and the present (1998) and the fairly dispassionate, sometimes misguided or downright false testimonies of white people (who are only seen in these scenes and in one brief shot of a white man in a field on a horse). The body language also contributes to the divide, as the black interviewees lean in, presenting themselves and their words with frank warmness (occasionally with accoutrements like children or an electric guitar) whereas the first two white people are shot behind desks and the third in an armchair. (Oddly, during two interviews, including the third white man’s, there are several fades to black, even though the others are all done in an unedited shot.)
Without a doubt, however, the most important and impactful scene is the sequence set in a church. Partly passionate and partly reserved, it covers both the political and the personal responses to the brutal tragedy that was James Byrd, Jr.’s murder. Fittingly, it expresses these emotions to a large degree through song that acts as both a lament and praise towards God, and it is no accident that all but one of South’s close-ups are in this scene.
I must echo the concerns of others that South is inadequate when it comes to articulating a clear position on the South and its inherent racism. But the key to me is the shots of nature that appear sporadically, especially in the last third, which suggest to me that the movie is quite simply a document. It is meant to be an evocation of the South, if not the “South” and all the political and societal entanglements that the term implies, and if it doesn’t achieve the lofty heights of a true dissection of this messy region, it is an experience the likes of which only Akerman can truly deliver.