What is the significance of White Lightning to popular culture?

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Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Sargent's film is not groundbreaking in its popular culture significance on its own, but rather fits into a larger dynamic on how the media found a particular comfort zone in its depiction of the South.  The film was significant to popular culture in being able to depict life in the South in a manner that removed any complexity to it and presented a view of it that would be considered as exploitational by Northern filmmakers in the view of Southern culture and life.  American historian James T. Kirby commented on such a depiction in his scholarship within the book,Media- Made Dixie:

[There is an overall] portrayal of Southerners using clichés of racists, graceful landed gentry, poverty, homespun rural values, stock-car racers and moonshiners.

White Lightning featured a couple of these ideas to the overall public, depositing them in the popular culture lexicon of what it means to be a Southerner.  Gator is in jail for running moonshine, while the Sheriff that killed Gator's brother is in collusion with those who make moonshine.  There is an "epic" car race and chase at the end of the film with the overall believe in the South that local, homemade values are the only ones worth defending.  In this, the film's significance was to enhance a larger narrative as to how the South is seen in popular media.  Of secondary note to its contributions to popular culture would be that the film began what was to be seen as a long line of Burt Reynolds- inspired films about Southern car chases, girls, and escape from the law, as seen in the Smokey and the Bandit series.