I can't believe I saw two movies about racial politics in Alabama at SXSW this year -- not what I would have expected. Both approached the issues in different ways, and both films were good. While The Order of Myths (which I reviewed already) focused on Mardi Gras in the Gulf Coast city of Mobile, the documentary Bama Girl takes us further north to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa to examine a tradition popular at many American universities: the selection and crowning of the Homecoming Queen.
Bama Girl focuses primarily on Jessica Thomas, a senior at the university who is determined to win Homecoming Queen. The problem is that a number of the white fraternities and sororities plus other unnamed organizations have formed a covert group known on campus as The Machine. The way in which the Homecoming Queen is elected on campus favors The Machine, which is why no African-American woman has won the crown since the rules change. This all sounds like paranoid fantasy and crazy student rumors, but when you see a staff member in the Dean of Students office talking seriously about The Machine, you start to wonder. Anyway, Jessica isn't going to let any secret society keep her from what she wants. She and her sorority sisters get to work to get her elected.
I didn't know much about Homecoming Queens even in my own college days -- I didn't wear makeup and tried to write like Dorothy Parker and so I tended to avoid the Greek scene. The amount of effort shown in Bama Girl to run for Homecoming Queen simply amazed me. I mean, when do these people ever go to class or write papers? But we did a lot of other stuff besides studying too, it just didn't involve making signs and Facebook groups and organizing a full-blown campaign of any kind.
Besides the murmurings about The Machine, the racial and social divides on campus are interesting to watch. Jessica visits a variety of student groups on campus to campaign personally for votes -- an organization for international students, a men's honor society -- students that the Greek organizations probably ignore. She's trying to hint that by voting for her, the students have a chance to topple The Machine's power. We also see some of the racially tense events that white Greek organizations host, like an "Old South" week with frat boys in Confederate uniforms and sorority girls in hoopskirts. One of Jessica's sorority sisters jokes, "They're gonna stop by here and leave us their laundry," but you can see the young women aren't happy with these sorts of university traditions. The issues become further complicated when a woman from a rival historically black sorority decides to enter the running.
Bama Girl spends a little more time than necessary in building up the suspense on the Homecoming Queen outcome. I preferred seeing the people behind the story, from Jessica and her hilarious campaign manager to a touching moment at the polls when we see a small but sweet effect of Jessica's campaigning. I also wish director Rachel Goslins and her crew had been able to spend time with the candidates that were supposed to be Machine-endorsed, but they did a good job profiling Jessica and another hopeful, a former sorority girl turned drama student. Overall, Bama Girl was one of the most entertaining movies, doc or feature, that I saw at SXSW this year -- I think it has special appeal for women raised in the South.
[If you want to see more people in tiaras than you ever imagined possible, check out Bama Girl director Rachel Goslins' SXSW blog on AOL. I still have my tiara from the screening!]