Ever since the 1915 release of “The Birth of a Nation,” movies have maintained a deep, complex relationship with the American South. Filmmakers have stereotyped, valorized, misrepresented and parodied one of the most complicated regions of the country. Their visions, although radically different in perspective, tend to be reductive. This column will explore the many ways in which directors of all stripes have portrayed this dramatic, turbulent region.

NOTE: This review contains spoilers and mentions of sexual assault.

In Martin Scorsese’s crime movies, the South is a uniquely fallen place — stranger and sleazier than the blatantly corrupt locales of the Northeast. Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro), the famed boxer and antihero of Scorsese’s 1980 “Raging Bull,” loses his mind in a Miami holding cell. In “Goodfellas” (1990), Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) has a similarly strange trip south of the Mason-Dixon Line, which ends with Henry declaring that “they must really feed each other to the lions down here!”

Scorsese’s “Cape Fear” (1991) is the director’s only movie set entirely in the South in a small, fictional town called New Essex, North Carolina. Despite its focus on law, it’s more of an exploitation movie than a courtroom drama, complete with regressive gender politics (several characters are raped or threatened with rape in an attempt to hurt the main male character by proxy), an intrusive score and an overlong climax. The film is a strangely muddled look at the Southern legal system, and Scorsese’s critical vision nevertheless refuses to acknowledge the racist nature of Southern law.

Nick Nolte stars as lawyer Sam Bowden, the classic upper-middle class guy who’s simply waiting around for his near-perfect life to get turned inside out. There to do the job is Robert De Niro as Max Cady, an unhinged ex-con with an axe to grind. While serving as Max’s court-appointed public defender, Sam buries evidence that could have helped his client. This conflict, one between personal morals and the letter of the law, hangs heavily over the film.

Max’s revenge begins with stalking and quickly escalates to sexual violence.

Devoted to the utter destruction of Sam Bowden’s life, Max Cady is like the T-1000, both implacable and nebulous, willing to assume any form in order to accomplish his mission. Flamboyant Max becomes the negative mirror image of repressed Sam. In contrast to the buttoned-up, modern Sam, Max’s character design seems Frankensteined together from a combination of traditional Southern gothic tropes. His silky Southern charm and loud Hawaiian shirts recall Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, while his booming religious rhetoric and sinister tattoos seem borrowed from Robert Mitchum’s famous depiction of a preacher. While these personas seem disjointed, they are united by their outre aesthetics and decidedly anti-bourgeois sentiments. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, a shocked private investigator informs Sam that Max has spent the day reading “Friedrich Nietzsche … a German philosopher [who] said that God is dead!”

In “Cape Fear,” appearances matter — to an extent. The social codes of Scorsese’s South are visible in the costuming. Max’s Hawaiian shirt — a bright, predatorial red — acts as both a warning and an attractor. It couldn’t be more different from Sam’s casual weekend seersucker suit, the official summer uniform of Southern gentlemen. When Max disguises himself as Sam’s young daughter’s summer school teacher, he dresses like one of her dad’s golf buddies in a polo and Lacoste cardigan. 

Gregory Peck’s costuming gives the movie away. Peck portrays Lee Heller, “the best criminal lawyer in the state” as a man attired at all times in a three-piece white suit, complete with a bowtie. In his dress and mannerisms, Peck’s character unmistakably recalls his portrayal of do-good liberal lawyer Atticus Finch in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird” film. Scorsese, however, turns the image of the righteous Southern lawyer on its head; when Sam attempts to procure the services of Lee, he finds that he has already been hired by Max. Here, Scorsese inverts the classic Southern white liberal myth lionized in “Mockingbird.” Lee directs his righteous fury at the protagonist, who reacts with shock, outrage and anger. As Lee calls for Sam to be disbarred, we see the thought forming in Sam’s eyes: this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to people like him. 

“Cape Fear” adds a touch of class conflict to the dynamic between  Sam and Max, who the former refers to as a “Pentecostal cracker.”  While class tensions constantly boil under the surface of “Cape Fear,” they do so in place of any sort racial tension. Race in “Cape Fear” is invisible in the Althusserian sense: not only is it not present, but it cannot be present for the film to function. Max can be anything (a charming redneck, a Charles Manson-esque seducer, a mad dog, the ubermensch), but he cannot be Black. If he was, “Cape Fear” would go from being an exploitation thriller of questionable taste to something truly reprehensible and racist. The portrayal of Black men as murderous, hypersexual despoilers is one of the most vicious racist stereotypes in America and has led to some of the most despicable hate crimes ever committed on American soil. 

Martin Scorsese. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even so, it is impossible in 2021 to listen to the winking, chummy exchanges between various lawyers, cops and judges (“The guy’s an ex-con. You know as well as I do what that means…”) and not think of America’s racist, corrupt justice system, which sends untold numbers of Black men to prison on spurious, trumped-up charges. The most basic facts of Max Cady’s situation — unjust treatment at the hands of his own state-sponsored lawyer — apply to many real people, very few of them white. Though these are national issues, they are even more pronounced in the South. In North Carolina, Black people, despite making up only 22% of the state demographic, account for 61% of the incarcerated population. Nationally, Black individuals make up about 14% of the population and 38% of the incarcerated population.

Scorsese’s movie paints a damning picture of the world of Southern law, where no one’s back stays itchy for too long. Not only is Sam quick to abandon his scruples at the first sign of trouble, going so far as to hire goons to beat Max, but the very system he has invested his life in also proves unsympathetic to his case. Yet, Scorsese’s refusal to acknowledge the racist aspects of this system is bizarre; even the most strident deniers of the 1619 Project would surely find it hard to argue against racism’s place as the original sin of Southern law.

Like Max Cady, “Cape Fear” is a strange jumble of disparate elements that never quite gel together into a cohesive whole. The film is a lot smarter than your average exploitation thriller, but its refusal to grapple with the issues of race prevents it from being a truly cutting look at the world of Southern law. 

This article is an installment of a series discussing the representation of the American South in films. Read the other articles in the series here.