The Year Of Walton Goggins And The Ghosts of Dixie

I’ve joked at various points this year that 2012 is the year of Walton Goggins, the intense-eyed actor who made a name for himself on corrupt cop drama The Shield, and who’s found an equally juicy role as Kentucky white supremacist Boyd Crowder on FX’s U.S. Marshal show Justified. First, there was his year on that show, where his character found new depths caring for his bitter enemy’s father, and as a political advocate for the residents of Kentucky coal-mining country. Then there was his bravura cameo on Sons of Anarchy as a very funny, sexy transgender prostitute named Venus Van Dam that shook up the conception of what Goggins is capable of. And now he is the common human element of two very disparate movies about the South, racial violence, and the tensions that cracked our country in half, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. It’s not just that Goggins has had what could be a career-making year. He’s done so in roles that could have stereotyped him as a googly-eyed, slack-jawed redneck, but that instead work together to explore a common idea, the lingering ghosts of the Confederacy and the struggles of poorer white men to define their identities, 150 years after the Civil War.

In Primary Colors, Joe Klein’s main character, Henry Burton reflects on the rise of white Southern, Civil Rights-supportive Democratic public officials that “Those pale, bland Southern Democrats seemed a down payment on the family dream. It was a whisper of a revolution: there wasn’t much blood or lust to it, just the promise of Northern money—new factories, new branch offices—in return for the appearance of racial harmony.” Tony Horowitz put a different spin on that phenomenon, twenty years after the seventies, in his reported journey through the South he chronicled in Confederates In The Attic. “First, it was the loss of the War and antebellum wealth,” he wrote of the South’s construction of its identity around loss. “Later, as millions of Southerners migrated to cities, it was the loss of a close-knit agrarian society. Now, with the region’s new prosperity and clout, Southerners wondered if they were losing the dignity and distinctiveness they’d clung to through generations of poverty and isolation.”

Goggins tends to play characters who never had access to that antebellum wealth. On Justified, Boyd Crowder is the descendant of multiple generations of poor white criminals. His own father deals drugs. He worked as a coal miner as a teenager, and found a temporary escape from Harlan County through service in the Army. In Lincoln, he plays Clay Hutchins, a Congressman of modest means and power—when considering bribing him to vote for the Thirteenth Amendment, Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) says of his asking price “A first-term Congressman who couldn’t earn reelection…I deemed it unseemly and bargained him down to Postmaster.” And in Django Unchained, he plays Billy Crash, a minor member of the entourage of Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a sadistic plantation owner—his access to plantation prosperity comes from his role relatively low down on that economic ladder, rather than his position as the predator at the top of it.

And the question for all of them is how they claim—or can’t bring themselves to grab for—the promise of prosperity that’s held out to them, either personally or systematically. Hutchins, despite his fears that “If my neighbors hear I voted yes to Nigger freedom and no to peace, they’ll kill me,” ends up supporting the Amendment. It’s an emotional moment, but not because Hutchins has discovered principles, or changed his mind on the question of equality for black Americans, but because he’s embraced his own greed, a job proffered from the North (specifically, Seward’s skulking men from Albany) in exchange for support of racial equality before the law. In Django Unchained, Billy Crash is unable to make even that sort of accommodation: his sense of his own identity is related less to plantation glory than to spasms of racial violence. He’s truly a figure of the past. And Boyd represents the challenge for contemporary poor white men who are unable to accept the terms offered to them by big business—in this case, coal mining companies, an industry that also makes an appearance in Django Unchained—on economic grounds, rather than racial ones. In this season of Justified, he confronts Sheriff Napier, a man who got the best of a Northern-fueled economic revitalization, and who suggests that Boyd should be disenfranchised because of his felony conviction.

“You think Shelby’s the only man in this room been done by a coal mining company?” he told Napier in a showdown at the sheriff’s debate. “You talk down to me because I been in trouble with the law…[Starting with a picket line where] I know that you weren’t there Mr. Napier. There sure were a lot of men there who looked like you. Men standing on the company side. Laughing at all us hillbillies who were just trying to stand up for what we believed in.”

In boom times, the question may have been whether men like Boyd Crowder were willing to work on factory lines with black men and women. Now, the question is whether the economy is working for any of them at all. That reconfiguration of our politics along class lines isn’t even close to over, or necessarily even close to permanent. Few things in American politics are. But in a single year, Goggins’ acting work has spanned that slow, painful, self-interested shift. It’s not just that Goggins’ performances have been consistent and wonderful this year—they’ve had a consistent animating idea behind them. In this midpoint in our observation of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War years, I don’t know that anyone could have predicted that a character actor with credits like House of 1000 Corpses on his resume would have been the person to embody our struggles with the years our nation fractured. But the more time I spend watching Goggins on screen, the more thankful I am that we have him to conjure up the ghosts of Dixie, in all their ridiculousness, their scrabbling demands for dignity, their utter, and often ugly, humanity.