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Movies Showcase Mississippi's Villainous Role


Among the best picture nominees for this Sunday's Academy Awards is Quentin Tarantino's slave revenge shoot-'em-up, "Django Unchained." "Django" is also up for Best Original Screenplay, and Christoph Waltz is nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Mississippi itself plays a supporting role, a villainous one..

NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji reports.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: This isn't Mississippi's first 15 minutes of celluloid infamy.


MERAJI: "Ghosts of Mississippi," "A Time to Kill," "The Help," "Mississippi Burning," all films where the Magnolia state plays good Southern host to racists and bigots. And for a reason. Three of those movies are based on real events.


MERAJI: Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" takes us back to Mississippi, this time way back - 1858, slavery. And to let us know we have arrived, Tarantino spells it out on screen in huge white letters: M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I.

Melissa Thomas, Mississippi born and raised, says she knew exactly what Tarantino wanted the audience to think.

MELISSA THOMAS: Oh Lord, Mississippi, things are really fixing to get bad. And they did.

MERAJI: In "Django," once the action hits Mississippi, things go from bad to cover your eyes.

Slaves are forced to fight to the death while owners place bets. A pack of dogs attacks and eats a runaway slave.

For Mississippian Renee Ombaba, it just reinforces a tired old stereotype.

RENEE OMBABA: Oh, racism, Oh, slavery. Mississippi. And that's the narrative people create. Not to say people are not complex. But when you're going to a movie and you're seeing images, what do you take away from it? Slavery was bad, dogs ate people, Mississippi.

MERAJI: And Tarantino gets specific. Chickasaw County, Mississippi, home to Candyland, a sprawling plantation run by sadistic owner Calvin Candie, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.


BOBBY SANDERSON: I'm Bobby Sanderson, I'm city clerk of the city of Houston, Mississippi, which is one of the two county seats of Chickasaw County. We're standing just south of the Chickasaw County Courthouse.

MERAJI: Bobby Sanderson can trace his Chickasaw County roots back to the mid-1800s. He says his great-great granddaddy probably owned slaves, but he calls that ancient history, and a painful history. Here's how Sanderson would rather Chickasaw County be known.

SANDERSON: We have a lot of associations with Elvis Presley and some of his kin folk live about here. A good little community in the red hills of North Mississippi that's trying real hard to get along and make our way in life.

MERAJI: Sanderson calls Hollywood's consistent portrayal of that racist Mississippi from back in the day unfair. And he's says he's happy that's a Mississippi his grandchildren will never know.

SANDERSON: The only perceptions they have of racial problems are those that we old folks inflict on them, partially by even discussing it.

WARREN LOVE: We never talk about it.

MERAJI: About an hour northwest of Chickasaw County, in Oxford, Warren Love and a couple of friends take a break between classes at the University of Mississippi's food court. Love and fellow freshmen Alex Brooks and Brandon Lambert are cool with Tarantino calling out Mississippi in "Django."

ALEX BROOKS: We need to talk about it. I mean it is history. We need to know our history.

BRANDON LAMBERT: Until Mississippi stops showing racist acts, we always going to be that state for, you know, that racism.

LOVE: Like my granddaddy has a pasture with cows and horses in it. Maybe a couple of miles up the road there is a KKK. To know it's that close, it's just like, wow.

MERAJI: Warren Love adds it's like complicated too. He says Mississippi is country living, four wheeling and family. Mississippi is home.

LOVE: And the saying is true, there's no place like home.

MERAJI: Something proud Mississippians can agree on. That and if Tarantino was going to take advantage of Mississippi's bad reputation, the least he could do was shoot his movie there. "Django"'s Mississippi scenes were filmed in Louisiana.

Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.

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