KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Them good ol' boys, Bo and Luke, are back in the big-screen version of TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard," opening Friday.
The faces are different -- Seann William Scott is Bo (played by John Schneider on TV) and Johnny Knoxville is Luke (Tom Wopat on TV) -- but the premise appears to be pretty much the same. There are plenty of car chases, a dunce of a sheriff, references to moonshining and the Confederate flag and that corrupt politician Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds, playing the part that went to the late Sorrell Brooke on TV).
Also on hand are Willie Nelson as Uncle Jesse and Jessica Simpson as Daisy Duke. Every Southern family has a sexy Daisy whose voice would melt magnolia blossoms, right?
Like the TV show, it's a parade of just the kind of Southern stereotypes that Hollywood seems to love. Such shows as "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Green Acres" thrived on poking fun at folks who resided in the backwoods.
Hank Price, senior fellow for television at Northwestern University's Media Management Center and general manager of WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, N.C., says the joke might be on Hollywood -- because the South gets it and has an ability to laugh at itself.
"I really don't think shows such as 'The Dukes,' 'Green Acres' and others like that do any harm," Price says. "I don't see them as a big problem as far as stereotyping goes. For the most part, they're just funny."
William Price Fox, a Columbia native, writer-in-residence and a professor of English at the University of South Carolina, agrees that most Southerners don't mind making fun of themselves.
"We've always had a sense of humor about ourselves," Price says. "Heck, we need it when things like 'The Dukes of Hazzard' come around."
Fox, who has written numerous successful books with a flavor of Southern humor, spent five years in Hollywood writing for television, including "The Beverly Hillbillies."
"It is another world out there," he says with a laugh. "I think the stereotypes will always be with us. They're easy for those who work on scripts to write about. So it's good that we [Southerners] don't take it so seriously."
A recent survey conducted by cable's Turner South network seems to confirm the latter point. Nearly 70 percent of the respondents, ages 18 to 50, from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas and Tennessee did not find the characters on "The Dukes of Hazzard" offensive.
One person who has found the new "Dukes" offensive, though, is Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman who played Cooter on the TV series. Jones says the TV show was family-friendly, but the movie -- promoted with a music video featuring a scantily-dressed and provocatively posing Jessica Simpson -- isn't.
"Basically, they trashed our show," Jones told The Associated Press. "It's like taking 'I Love Lucy' and making her a crackhead or something."
The only reservation that Hank Price has is that a lot of non-Southerners might not understand "The Dukes" aren't representative of the entire South. There are still millions of people in America who have never visited the Southeast and only know it by what they see on TV and in the movies.
"Let me give you an example," Price says. "I worked at a television station in Minneapolis back in the 1980s and part of the 1990s. During our first years there, our two boys got in fights at school. You know what caused it? Some of the kids assumed that if we were from the South, we were members of the [Ku Klux] Klan."
H. Thorne Compton of USC's Institute for Southern Studies recalls: "Several years ago, we had someone from Philadelphia come down here to do a play. He had never been in the South and came here with great trepidation. He even brought his own spices for food. When he got here, he was actually amazed that we had grocery stores that sold spices."
Still, Price doesn't blame any television series for those misconceptions.
"There have been some positive examples of shows set in the South," he says. "Look at 'The Andy Griffith Show,' which has been running for decades and is popular in all parts of the country. I think people everywhere embrace its values. 'In the Heat of the Night' showed a modern South in which blacks and whites worked together and were friends."
The biggest culprits in portraying Southerners in a negative light are movies -- both the big-screen and made-for-TV varieties, Price says. It's done in subtle ways, with a redneck racist here or an overweight, mean-spirited sheriff who has a habit of saying "Boy" there.
He cites "Mississippi Burning" (1988) as an example. Although fictional, the film was based on the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi in 1964. It received critical acclaim, but also drew criticism from both whites and blacks.
"I think the film made it seem as if almost every white person was connected with the Klan," Price says.
Many blacks criticized the movie because they said it made it seem as if the FBI and many white Northerners were responsible for the civil rights movement. It gave almost no credit to the blacks who fought hard for justice and equal rights.
In the 1920s and '30s, Compton says, "Many movies portrayed the South as almost heroic victims of a lost cause. Then in the 1940s, with the growth of country music, the movies discovered the hillbilly and we've gone from there.
"I think it is getting much better, but I think Hollywood will always hold on to those Southern stereotypes. They've become so much a part of our American folklore."
The South still is haunted by the stigma of the Civil War and some of the images of the civil rights movement, Price says.
"But I think that's finally, gradually changing," he says. "The Internet, more diverse television and the ease with which people can travel around the country now have helped."
He notes the migration of people from other parts of the country to the South also is bringing about changes.
"North and South" author Jakes doesn't think that's altogether a good thing.
"I fear that eventually the things we liked about the South and liked about many Southerners may vanish," he says. The slower pace and the polite manners might gradually erode.
Fox, though, thinks there will always be room for good ol' boys and Southern jokes.
"As long as we don't lose our sense of humor, we'll be OK," Fox says. "We understand that they're jokes."