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.