For years, the town where I grew up – and where I still live – has succumbed to Hollywood fever. Since 1955, television and film crews have called Covington, GA home. I have fond memories of five-year-old me standing on the corner in front of the pharmacy where my mom worked (next door to where I work now) with her and her boss watching cars race down the street over and over again. The chase scene was part of a pilot for a little new show called The Dukes of Hazzard. The show filmed its first season here before going back to Hollywood.
Years later, I appeared as an extra, along with the rest of my high school chorus, in an episode of In the Heat of the Night, (that’s me, second from the left on the back row in the video below) which filmed its six seasons in Covington. The library where I worked doubled as the police station, and we would remain open on filming days while the actors would come inside and talk with us in between takes. Currently, The Vampire Diaries films here, and the atmosphere on filming days buzzes with electricity. A local couple makes thousands of dollars every month giving tours to fans who call themselves Vampire Stalkers.
Our town has been the stage for Oscar winners (My Cousin Vinny‘s Marissa Tomei and a short called The Accountant) and Emmy winners (Carroll O’Connor of In the Heat of the Night). Celebrities as diverse as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Amy Grant, and Denzel Washington have passed in front of the cameras in our town. Needless to say, we longtime Covington residents are used to show business.
Covington isn’t that unique. Production companies film all over the South – and have done so for years. So why is it that, most any time a character from the South opens his or her mouth on television or film, the accent that comes out is terrible?
For those of y’all who don’t know, the South is a diverse region – a melting pot in the truest sense of the phrase. From one region to the next – and even from town to town – you’ll find unique cultures. The same goes for dialects. At Slice of Hope, Tim Knight points out the diversity of Southern accents:
Of course, there isn’t just one southern accent, just like there isn’t just one Texas accent. A person from Georgia is going to sound very different from a guy from Mississippi or a person from South Carolina. And if you’re from Florida, well, you probably don’t sound like anything special at all.
But one thing is for sure. Any authentic southern accent, no matter what the state, wasn’t created at Warner Brothers.
I don’t know where Hollywood producers and casting agents have experienced the South. Perhaps they’ve only visited the beaches in Florida, where no one has a Southern accent, or maybe the Atlanta airport, where one can find approximately 3,500 different accents. Either way, Hollywood doesn’t seem to grasp the differences in accents.
You see, to Hollywood, the South has two basic dialects, which I’ll call the White Trash accent and the Old South accent. In this clip from The Office, Atlanta native Ed Helms demonstrates both inflections perfectly:
Both accents are useful for Hollywood. Producers often use them to enforce stereotypes. The Old South accent – which you can still hear in my grandparents’ and even my parent’s generations – is meant to suggest refinement on the surface but in Hollywood represents someone who looks down on everyone else or hides a bigoted past just beneath the surface. The White Trash accent twangs it up to the extreme and is useful for portraying rubes and stupid hicks. As a matter of fact, I cringe every time a dumb character comes on screen in a sitcom – almost inevitably he or she will speak with an overdone Southern drawl.
So, who are the worst violators? On internet forums and in my own informal polling, consensus offenders include Dan Aykroyd in Driving Miss Daisy, much of the cast of HBO’s True Blood, and Nicolas Cage in just about any role that requires him to use a Southern accent. Personally, I find Tom Hanks’ drawl in Forrest Gump (White Trash Exhibit A) detestable, but the absolute worst accents belong to two cast members in the North & South miniseries. Teri Garber takes the Old South dialect to new lows, and Philip Casnoff could have singlehandedly destroyed the South with whatever that is coming out of his mouth:
Don’t get me wrong – you can find some good Southern accents from time to time. Jessica Tandy nailed the Old Atlanta speech patterns in Driving Miss Daisy (though she loses points for mispronouncing some Atlanta place names). More recent television series like Friday Night Lights and Nashville feature really good accents among their actors. Native Southerners like Kyle Chandler and Nick Searcy do their region proud.
So where do all the bad dialects come from? Hollywood often doesn’t bother to find accents that truly represent the South basically because they don’t really care about Southerners. We live in what they call “flyover country” between the coasts. Hollywood has developed its neat stereotypes of us, and its denizens aren’t interested in finding out if they’re even true.
If Hollywood ever wants the real thing, they should come down here and experience the South – not just as a filming location, but as a culture to respect and enjoy. They would find a varied, beautiful way of life and amazing people. Come on, Hollywood: we’d be glad to show y’all around!