The United States of Film: Virginia

These 20 films best represent the Old Dominion, a state still colored by a certain long history of moral gray.

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The United States of Film: Virginia

As a wise man once said: Meet Virginia.

In other words: Sic semper tyrannis, pal. Welcome to the Old Dominion. State flag got nudity? Check. Flag got nudity and a lady with a spear standing over the vanquished body of a tyrant who dared lay hands on our beloved Commonwealth’s hallowed soil? Check and check. Gorgeous beaches, beautiful mountains (pronounce “Appalachian” App-uh-LATCH-in, please), enough Civil War history for at least five middle school field trips—that’s Virginia.

Or, that’s Virginia as seen from the distance of New York City, where I live now. I’m from a place called Lynchburg, which saves me a lot of time in explaining to you Virginia’s long history of racism, typified by the leading role it played in the Civil War. Lynchburg is also home to Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian college founded by the late Reverend Jerry Falwell. You remember him, the Moral Majority leader who thought Tinky Winky the Teletubby was gay, and who blamed 9/11 on “the abortionists” along with homosexuals and feminists, and who also happens to be my third cousin. Yeah. That guy. There’s a lot of that guy in Virginia.

But then, Virginia went for Barack Obama. Twice. As of 2015, we have two Democratic senators and a Democratic governor. And in Northern Virginia—a distinctive region, practically a separate state if you let its self-satisfied denizens have their way—you’ll find the top four richest counties, by median income, in the country, all tucked away in a never-ending sprawl of concrete strip malls, bland office towers and apocalyptic traffic. In a BMW, stuck somewhere on I-66, you’ll find a defense contractor, Oakley shades pushed on top of his head, arguing with Diane Rehm on the radio about the situation in Montenegro in between sips of kale juice. You’ll find a lot of that guy in Virginia, too.

Virginia contains multitudes (you know Whitman came through). Is it a Southern state, with all the stereotypical trappings, or is that in the past? Is it rural poor, or suburban rich? Farm country or tasteless sprawl? Perhaps that ambiguity has something to do with why Virginia doesn’t have such an established place in the filmic imagination as, say, Michigan.

So I ask: Northern Virginians, put down your issue of Foreign Affairs (really?) and put on your sensible wire-rimmed frames. Southern Virginians, stop polishing your gun and start pouring some shine. It’s movie time, y’all. For all of us. (Well, maybe not for Charlottesville. Ugh, fine.) And no, I promise this isn’t just a menagerie of Clipse music videos. Let’s travel the Commonwealth through a list of the 20 most VA-ish films that call VA home. No two-thumbs-up here: just two up two down, baby.


20. The Littlest Rebel
Year: 1935
Director: David Butler

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Oh, dear. Look, Shirley Temple occupies an indelible role in cinematic history, famously the biggest box-office draw of the late 1930s and one of the most beloved silver screen icons of all time. OK, but you try watching The Littlest Rebel.

Temple plays Virgie (her full name is Virginia, natch), a six year-old Southern-belle-in-training whose days are full of typical Little Girl Stuff, like grand birthday parties and entertaining dances from her very own slave (Bill Robinson, as Uncle Billy). The Civil War interrupts Virgie’s childhood idyll when her father is sent from the plantation to the Confederate ranks; later, Virgie will team up with a kind Union colonel (Jack Holt) who tries to help her, her father and Uncle Billy flee to Richmond to escape the rural violence of the War. It’s all presented innocently enough, with Virgie and her father alike implicitly learning the errors of the Confederacy’s ways through the magnanimity of Holt’s colonel and, yep, Abe Lincoln himself.

But director David Butler’s handling of Uncle Billy and the film’s other black characters that makes The Littlest Rebel borderline unwatchable today, no matter its good intentions in saving the souls of a few more (fictional) Southerners. This isn’t a surprise. It was 1935, and America—all of it, above and below the Mason-Dixon—was, in the jargon of historians, racist as hell. Temple’s anodyne cuteness may excuse the film’s politics for some viewers (at least for the span of its 70 minutes), but ultimately her presence makes the ugliness of its prejudices more stark in comparison. The Littlest Rebel is only worth watching in order to remind oneself about the prevalence of the dehumanizing of black people and their representations in art, even by “the good guys.”


19. Pocahontas
Year: 1995
Directors: Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg

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A minor work in Disney’s golden age of feature-length animation, Pocahontas suffers from extreme whitewashing—though not in its actual animation, which has to be some of the studio’s best-looking work of that decade. Watching the film on mute might be a better experience overall, though you’d miss “Colors of the Wind”…which you are now humming.

Despite some solid song-machine tunes and that beautiful art direction, Pocahontas is a drag. Literally, in the sense that its plot has nothing of the Shakespeare-lite thrills of The Lion King or the heart-tugging comedy of Beauty and the Beast, and figuratively, in its reminder—60 years after The Littlest Rebel—how matter-of-factly Hollywood continues to gloss over questions of race in American history. Yes, it’s a kid’s movie, but give that audience some credit: Surely Disney’s target demo could’ve dealt with a few more coded references to John Smith and company’s invasive presence in the homeland of Pocahontas? Disney’s greatest animated films have always been didactic, and a “love conquers all” message easily fits into a “racism is bad” framework, too. After all, “Virginia Is for Lovers.”


18. Donnie Darko
Year: 2001
Director: Richard Kelly

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Hey. Donnie Darko is not a good movie: Let’s get that out of the way.

It’s half of a good movie, doused in blue light and time-travel gobbledygook, with a strong early performance by Jake Gyllenhaal and a potent sense of dread permeating nearly every scene. Or, put more plainly, it’s a good College Movie, of a type with Fight Club and Requiem for a Dream—highly stylized, anchored by solid actors doing great work with their material, and stuffed with ideas about defining your own American life in the face of the gaping void at the center of our consumerist, me-first culture, ideas these films generally boil down to “world sucks, do you.” You know, college stuff. Dorm room poster stuff. Acoustic-guitar-protest-songs-on-the-quad stuff.

Kelly does well enough saturating the film with dour, doomsday fantasia—that rabbit really is creepy—but he can’t manage to figure out the film’s pacing, meaning all the intrigue and suspense of the earlier scenes build to nothing. The pleasure of watching Gyllenhaal carry the entire film on his shoulders almost makes up for the script, but not quite. Still! It takes place in Middlesex, Virginia, in Accomack County, which to you is the weird little peninsula off Virginia’s coast that lots of maps seem to forget. Thank you, Donnie Darko, for shedding light (dull, dull blue light) on the Eastern Shore, which might be isolated enough to make you start seeing anthropomorphic rabbits…?


17. Remember the Titans
Year: 2000
Director: Boaz Yakin

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Sport! We love it in Virginia. (Go Hoos, or Hokies, or Hookies—whatever.) True story: Remember the Titans came out when I was in high school, and we watched it at least six times the year the DVD hit shelves nationwide. Teacher too hung over in Driver’s Ed? Remember the Titans. Substitute this week in Geo/Trig? Remember the Titans—never forget.

In case you were busy actually learning the quadratic equation (sure), Remember the Titans is a Jerry Bruckheimer film about racism in football. It’s roughly as subtle as that implies, but a) Denzel Washington, and b) only, like, seven minutes of football at a time—which is an optimal amount of football at a time. Plus, it is a genuinely heartwarming true-ish story! Sanitized with about 40 gallons of the pine-scented industrial cleaner they use in your high school gym, but heartwarming.

Coach Herman Boone dedicates himself to effectively integrating the football team at Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School. It’s 1971, so even in Virginia segregation has been over for quite a while, but the team still functions with a deep racial divide between its players. Good news: Coach Boone is played by Denzel Washington, and you know Denzel can handle that shit without breaking a sweat. He brings heft to a character rarely allowed any serious complexity here, and—combined with some genuinely exciting editing in the game scenes—that makes Titans among the better ways to kill a few hours of Algebra II. As for its place in Virginia’s cinematic pantheon? Titans typifies one way the Commonwealth has been forced to reckon with its racist past—and present—even if that reckoning comes far later than we’d like.


16. The Patriot
Year: 2000
Director: Roland Emmerich

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Filmed at a time when Hollywood thought Mel Gibson could plausibly embody American Values, The Patriot boils the American Revolution down to a blockbuster glaze. The British villain (Jason Isaacs) is a flesh-and-blood cartoon, and Gibson’s Cincinnatus-cum-Braveheart farmer-warrior has little of the ambiguous morality of his source material, proto-guerrilla Francis “The Swamp Fox” Marion. But Emmerich proves surprisingly deft at mixing Edenic scenery, finely paced action sequences and unobtrusive CGI to create epic battle scenes that are actually coherent—a tough trick. And Heath Ledger, in an early role, brings a welcome effusiveness to his scenes. Still, The Patriot cops out and cashes in on easy nationalism, in the end. Most of this movie takes place in South Carolina, so we’ll blame its saggier parts on that.


15. Night Flight from Moscow (Le Serpent)
Year: 1973
Director: Henri Verneuil

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Virtually forgotten in a period rich with spy thrillers and neo-noir, Henri Verneuil’s Le Serpent, or Night Flight from Moscow in its American release, proves to be a prescient, if occasionally dull, depiction of espionage in the world of cyberspace. Yul Brynner’s Vlassov, a Soviet defector, claims to have a list of high-profile double agents embedded in nearly every Western government. Henry Fonda and Dirk Bogarde, as CIA agent Allan Davies and his MI6 counterpart, Philip Boyle (respectively), are put to the task of sussing out the truth behind Vlassov’s allegations.

Set in part at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Night Flight from Moscow finds Verneuil bringing a curious, almost documentarian feel to the film’s Cold War intrigue. This atmosphere of detachment fits well with the film’s focus on the impersonal side of espionage: digital data, polygraph tests, the sense of ominous mystery surrounding computers and their capabilities in computing’s early days. While not as intricate or evenly paced as even second-tier work from, say, John LeCarré, Night Flight from Moscow offers old-fashioned thrills and an interesting look at a time when the digital revolution was in its infant stages—and still about to change everything. The Virginia of Langley is perhaps the most popular version of the state in Hollywood, and its centrality in so many political thrillers speaks to the Old Dominion’s long history of serving as the setting for America’s important fights, whether on the battlefield or behind closed doors.


14. In This Our Life
Year: 1942
Director: John Huston

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In his second film, In This Our Life, John Huston hadn’t yet mastered the stunning, exquisitely framed visual style that became his hallmark. His debut feature a year before, the peerless The Maltese Falcon, better shows his auteur’s instincts in action, but In This Our Life offers plenty pleasures of its own. Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland give wonderful performances as sisters Stanley and Roy (yes) Timberlake of Richmond. Husbands are stolen, divorces and suicides darken the picture, and vehicular manslaughter plays a prominent co-starring role. That’s right—this is ’40s melodrama in high gear.

Once again, race drives the conflict at the story’s center, as de Havilland’s Roy marries Craig Fleming (George Brent), a liberal attorney who works closely with—and later represents on trial—a young black man, Perry Clay (Ernest Anderson). This is a Huston film, after all, and it has an earnest, progressive moral to impart on its viewers, highlighting how little a black man’s word counted in the courts of the time. The U.S. Office of Censorship famously prohibited its foreign release in 1943, due to its honest account of structural racism in the American justice system. Made only seven years after The Littlest Rebel, In This Our Life shows a different side of the struggle for racial equality in a country—and state—still roiling with the politics of hate.


13. The House of Yes
Year: 1997
Director: Mark S. Waters

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The Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. are the perfect setting for a film about the psychological decay underneath the McMansion glitter of the nation’s striving upper class. Based on Wendy MacLeod’s play, The House of Yes mines some seriously Faulknerian taboos for both comic and dramatic material, resulting in a deliciously uncomfortable film of shifting tones and alliances. Parker Posey gives a charismatic performance as the disturbed Jacqueline “Jackie-O” Pascal, navigating the psychology of a difficult character with contagious energy. Spoiling the plot would be a crime, but suffice it to say: NoVA, with its sprawling traffic, lookalike seven-bedroom homes and self-serious professional political class, offers up the underbelly of American wealth for any filmmaker with a knife and the steel to use it. Waters doesn’t hold back.


12. Shenandoah
Year: 1965
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

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Here Jimmy Stewart brings his shambling dignity to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, playing Charlie Anderson, loyal Virginian and abolitionist—a tough combination to manage in the Civil War. Shenandoah borrows from the mythology of Robert E. Lee to create Anderson’s character, a man who opposes slavery (a dubious claim in Lee’s biography, by the way) but can’t bring himself to fight against Virginia and join the Union cause. Unlike Lee, he doesn’t take the mental leap necessary to join the Confederate Army, either, and Anderson prohibits his six sons from signing on to either side, as well. As you may guess, things don’t quite go as planned, and the war brings tragedy to his family nonetheless.

Stewart doesn’t quite convince as a rural Virginian farmer, but he’s endlessly watchable here, anyway. His presence also adds to the sense that Shenandoah, made in 1965, is a film from a different era, ten or fifteen years earlier; its family-friendly ending and gauzy emotion see to that, when compared to the politics of the time—Vietnam and the anti-war movement were in full swing—and the grittier, disillusioned attitude soon to take hold in American filmmaking. But the film, in its own soft-handed way, presents its own anti-war message, buoying it with a (mostly implicit) opposition to racial prejudice, as well. The Shenandoah feels as timeless today as it must have in 1965 and 1865 alike, underscoring Virginia’s integral role in the myth-making of the years surrounding America’s greatest conflict.


11. The Last Detail
Year: 1973
Director: Hal Ashby

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Jack Nicholson in his prime; Hal Ashby right off of Harold and Maude; screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown)—why isn’t The Last Detail a bigger moment in American cinema? Columbia Pictures refused to release the film, due to Towne’s profanity-soaked script; the studio only caved when Nicholson won the award that year for Best Actor at Cannes, but the damage to its marketability had been done. Sad: Nicholson is tremendously entertaining as sailor Billy “Badass” Buddusky, ordered to assist in escorting fellow seaman Larry Meadows (Randy Quaid) from their naval base in Norfolk up to Portsmouth Naval Prison in Maine. Ashby shoots simply, his Godard-esque jump cuts adding a sense of formal screwiness to the script’s word-drunk playfulness. Again, Virginia serves as a sort of home—in a surrogate sense, here—for a few reluctant journeymen, and its presence is felt more off-screen than on. It’s like that: Virginia is a place you come back to, with all the ambivalence of a long-awaited return, whether you appreciate the place’s gravitational pull or not.

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