I’ve spent my whole life in the South and I honestly can’t imagine living anywhere else. I was born and raised in the Monkey Junction area of Wilmington. I visited family in neighboring Leland and spent summers “vacationing” in Dawsonville, Georgia, hometown of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott, aka Awesome Bill From Dawsonville or Million Dollar Bill. I grew up in Myrtle Gardens, where the sign read, “Small tracts of land for trailer homes.” We had a double-wide trailer on about an acre of land, so we definitely were of upper-lower class status.
So what does any of that have to do with the 1999 film, The Corndog Man? Well, kind of a lot.
The characters depicted in this film resonate with me. They are the people who lived in my trailer park, shopped in the same Kmart aisles and — most relative to this movie — sold us cars. They feel eerily familiar to me, serving as oddly comforting, albeit dark, snapshots of my past.
The Corndog Man tells the story of a loud, foul-mouthed boat salesman from rural South Carolina. This salesman, named Ace Barker, thinks he has a fish on the line when he takes a call from one potential customer, only to find that this mysterious caller is someone holding on to a dark secret from Ace’s past. Noble Willingham, perhaps the only person with a more ridiculous name than Ace Barker, plays the salesman beautifully. Willingham (Good Morning, Vietnam; Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; City Slickers) nails the performance here by keeping it grounded, so as to not feel like a Southern caricature. The voice over the phone — the titular Corndog Man — is never fully seen, which helps build tension throughout the whole film.
The whole movie could be described as a one-man show, as most of the dialogue is made up of Ace Barker’s one-sided conversations with the Corndog Man. Honestly, this could make for an astounding one-man show, as all secondary characters are just that: secondary. So someone please get on that.
The movie itself is based on a series of prank phone calls known as “The Benny Calls.” In short, The Benny Calls consist of a person ringing up a car dealer named Benny and asking questions that only become more silly over time about cars, all the while promising to come down there and make a purchase. In the end, it makes quite a statement about our slavery to capitalism that Benny would even stay on the phone, but I digress.
In effect, The Corndog Man, as a movie, asks the question, “What if there was something more to these calls? What if there was something darker underneath? What if the prank caller was trying to get revenge, and outside of a silly joke, really wanted to make the person’s life a living hell?”
Anyone who grew up listening to John Boy and Billy, Willie P. Richardson or even Jerry Clower can identify with the “Good ol’ boy” redneck trope. Oddly enough, this film actually had me reflecting on how problematic these stereotypes can truly be. Growing up in the South, we all knew those Good ol’ boys — the ones who went to church with us and were nice to your face and said hello to the black family at church, but underneath it all were still proud Sons of the Confederacy.
They were seemingly good-natured and polite older gentlemen whose racism, sexism and homophobia were just shrugged away, since they were overall a “good person.” They were the sweet grandmother who said, “They’re one of the good ones.” They were quick to bring up how lazy welfare recipients were destroying America, and people just need to get back to work, even if they were on food stamps themselves or relying on a Medicaid-funded mobility scooter.
I grew up being told not to rock the boat or challenge these people on their beliefs. The Corndog Man is an oddly progressive movie for 1999 in that it doesn’t shy away from racism, transphobia, misogyny and what I’ll call “Southern group-think.” As a pre-millennium film, I don’t think it delves into those issues as hard as we might like to see in 2019, but just for including them in the film at all, it’s uniquely challenging for the time period.
For those avoiding spoilers, please skip ahead of this paragraph, but in order to really explain my point, we’ll need to dive right into points of the plot. The big reveal ends up being that Ace’s son is the Corndog Man, after all. But why? Flashbacks in the film reveal that Ace had an African-American friend in the Army, who he would often stick up for and protect. In one sequence, this friend’s girlfriend comes to visit him in the barracks and his fellow soldiers start sexually assaulting her, while making his friend watch. Ace happens upon the assault and instead of stopping them, his fellow soldiers goad him into raping the man’s girlfriend.
The Corndog Man, is revealed as the product of this rape, thus explaining his revenge. The film also reveals that Ace’s current day girlfriend is an African-American trans woman, and when that latter part is revealed to Ace, he acts as if he wasn’t aware. This big reveal is implemented in a tired way involving a problematic trope, but I believe the filmmaker is aware of the trope and how it would it would feel to a “good ol’ boy” like Ace Barker. It’s worth noting the time in which the film was made, while not fully excusing it in a modern-day context.
The “good ol’ boy” redneck trope is something I’ve been struggling to wrap my mind around lately. There are so many moving pieces to it, so it’s impossible to really encapsulate it all in one column. There’s something really dark about bigotry and social repression, and the only way I can fully understand it is to tie in my religious background. I was raised Apostolic, which is essentially a more strict sect of Pentecostalism. The faith is based around strict morals, or “standards,” as we called them. Women weren’t allowed to cut their hair, wear jewelry or wear makeup. They were only allowed to wear long skirts, which would often go past their knees. Men were to keep their hair short and wear only long pants.
Modesty was the main tenant. Unlike the Amish, we were expected to live in the world, but not be a part of it. We weren’t allowed to watch TV — though most in the congregation did — and were expected to only date people within the faith. Homosexuality was strongly forbidden and while the church would never preach racism, it was often frowned upon to date outside of your race. As a deacon once told me, “Be ye not unequally yoked … what communion does light have with darkness.” (Corinthians 6:14). These types of churches predominantly exist in the South, oftentimes in more rural locations.
With a little reflection and further reading, one could easily see that these passages had nothing at all to do with race and only supported the idea of not fraternizing with non-believers. Where this ties back in to the “good ol’ boy” trope and The Corndog Man is that is was always those Ace Barker types who would feed me this type of nonsense growing up in the faith. They would distort what the Bible had to say to push their racist and homophobic agendas, all the while potentially doing everything they spoke out against.
They could be as sinful as they needed to be during the week, just as long as they went to church on Sunday and asked God for forgiveness. The Ace Barker type is a fractured self, one fractured due to years of social repression. As socially jovial and a part of the community as these folks may be, we can not excuse their bad behavior, it doesn’t erase their past mistakes and current transgressions. While I wouldn’t say this is only a characteristic present in Southern males, it’s a common archetype still seen today.
I recently saw Joe Bob Briggs host his one-man show/history lesson, How Rednecks Saved Hollywood, at C3 Lab in South End, and The Corndog Man could’ve easily fit into the thrust of his whole thesis. Films have always had a deep fascination with highlighting the South, even pointing to us like we’re freaks. With The Corndog Man, director/writer Andrew Shea succeeds in riding the line between everyday life and the darkness underneath in a rural Southern town, and I can’t recommend this disturbing film enough.