A documentary film traces tobacco’s impact on the Old Belt region of Virginia
By David Bearinger
Halifax and Pittsylvania counties lie at the heart of Virginia’s Old Belt tobacco-growing region. Danville is—or was—its epicenter. For more than a century, beginning in the mid-1800s, millions of pounds of some of the highest-grade cigarette tobacco in the world was grown by farmers in this region and sold through an auction system that supported a thriving local economy, scores of farming families, and a distinctive fabric of local traditions and ways of life.
But by the 1990s, the fabric of tobacco culture in the Old Belt was beginning to unravel. Demand for tobacco in the United States was in steep decline, global markets were changing, and tobacco farming was being sustained by a federal system of price-supports and acreage allotments that had been in place since the Great Depression. In 1999, Jim Crawford, a Roanoke-based cultural geographer, began work on a documentary film he hoped would capture this way of life as it was disappearing. The film would eventually reach millions of viewers.
Released in 2005, Down in the Old Belt: Voices from the Tobacco South gives a Virginia face to the cultural evolution that’s been taking place in agriculture and farming communities throughout the United States since the 1980s. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) awarded the first grant to support the project and offered additional support at key points along the way.
The film was broadcast on more than 150 PBS stations in 2006. That same year, it was awarded Best Documentary Film at the Appalachian Film Festival and commended in a Joint Resolution by the Virginia Senate. Down in the Old Belt has since been screened at the Library of Congress and in dozens of communities across Virginia, including the city of Franklin, where it inspired a group of local citizens to begin work on a similar documentary film on the history of peanut agriculture in the Virginia’s Western Tidewater region. It has also been licensed for distribution by the largest multimedia distributor in North America.
The story begins soon after the founding of Jamestown, when John Rolfe became the first colonial Virginian to export tobacco to England; but it shifts dramatically in the mid-to-late 1800s when farmers in Virginia and North Carolina began producing the distinctive, flue-cured Bright leaf tobacco that smokers favor. The film concludes in the aftermath of the 2004 federal buyout that ended the price-support and allotment systems as well as the traditional warehouse auctions, thus making small-scale tobacco farming of the kind that took root in the Virginia’s Old Belt difficult if not impossible to maintain.
Gold tobacco leaves above the entrance to the State Capitol in Richmond speak to the deep connection between tobacco and the economy and political life of Virginia. In recent years, health concerns have tarnished tobacco’s image, but Down in the Old Belt is neither an indictment nor a defense. It is, instead, an objective but still remarkably compassionate look at the history of tobacco in Virginia and at the strong links between tobacco farming and local culture.
Hometown tobacco festivals and sharecropping, family ties to the land and migrant labor, curing barns and globalization, are all part of the story. And one of the great strengths of this film is that it allows the people of the Old Belt region to speak for themselves. Their voices are eloquent and sometimes haunting.
“In this day and time, when a farm is sold … that land is broken up …. So you change your landscape and the beauty that people talk about when they drive through Southside…. Well, you’d better look while you can because I don’t know how much longer it will be here…. I don’t foresee anyone else will come in behind me and farm this land.” —C. D. Bryant, tobacco farmer
At the film’s premiere at Danville Community College in 2006, the auditorium was overflowing with tobacco farmers, local civic leaders, and longtime residents; men and women, old and young, black and white. People spoke about how much it meant to them to hear their stories told. In the end, Crawford came to see his work as a kind of “sacred connection” to people and their lives in the present and, through them, to the deep roots of the past, the ropes of tradition that hold a community to its moorings. “I wanted to create a documentary film that was respectful and honest, and also nonjudgmental,” Crawford says. “I wanted to find the heart of the story and let the people of the Old Belt tell that story in their own words.”
One happy, unexpected consequence of VFH’s support for the film was the introduction to Bob Cage, a native of the Old Belt region and a world champion tobacco auctioneer. In 2007, he participated as a master artist in VFH’s Folklife Apprenticeship Program. Jim Crawford was his apprentice.
The film closes with original music, also composed by Crawford, blending Cage’s auction chant with the sound of marimbas. Just a few minutes earlier, the essence of what’s happened in the Old Belt is captured in footage of a modern tobacco auction. There is no auctioneer, no chant; the room is quiet except for the sound of footsteps, as buyers walk the rows of bales placing their bids on handheld electronic devices.
“I’m a dinosaur now,” Cage says. “Bones.”
David Bearinger is the director of grants and community programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Preview clips of the film are available at Swinging Gate Productions and Films Media Group.