Every Florida Book Project

television & movies set in Florida

Yes, television shows and movies are not books. However, since most films set in Florida are written, produced, and directed by people who live and work in New York or LA, films provide a window into how Florida exists in the American imagination, much more so than novels set in Florida, which are usually written by Floridians.


Watching a movie set in Florida allows Floridians to stand outside Florida and look into it through the eyes of others. What can we learn from this experience? In the earliest films, Florida exists in a dream-like state where anything is possible. For example, the very earliest film I've found, a 1914 silent called A Florida Enchantment, is a movie about gender role reversal, bordering on transgenderism. It is way ahead of the politics and cultural attitudes of 1914 and interestingly the gender transformations are caused by a seed -- a natural part of the Florida environment. Of the early films, the only sober, cold-eyed view of the state is provided by the Marx Brothers in their satire of the land boom, Cocoanuts. The last of the enchantment films are probably Elvis's movies of the 1960s, which were released at the same time as the first Florida mobster films with Frank Sinatra.


Mobster movies first appeared in the 1950s and 60s, but a shift began in the 70s and continued through the 80s. In these films, Florida is no longer a land of enchantment. Instead it is a place of crime, violence, and monsters (both human and non-human). This change was probably a response to the rise of Florida as a point of entry for smuggled marijuana and cocaine and the War on Drugs, which replicated the conditions of prohibition. Many of the Florida drug/gangster films, like Scarface, refer back to the mobster films of the 1930s.


At the same time, the 1980s also produced comedies like Spring Breakers, Porky's, Revenge of the Nerds II, and Police Academy 5, where Florida is presented as a place Americans can go on vacation and have wacky adventures. This may mark the beginning of the now prevalent perception of Florida as a wild and crazy place where anything can happen, exemplified by the mad-cap wackiness in Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey novels. This is different than the feeling of enchantment in earlier films. In the enchantment films, love rules -- between the characters, the land, and each other. In more recent films the craziness has a dangerous edge to it. Florida is not something to dream about but to survive and marvel at in both fear and disbelief.


Despite the popular perception of Florida as "God's waiting room," a land of frosty-haired retirees, the only film to tap into that idea was 1985's Cocoon. Similarly, despite the fact that when human beings left the Earth to stand on the Moon they took off from Florida, few films have presented Florida as humanity's connection to outer space, a place of scientists, engineers, and explorers, except for the kid's movie Flight of the Navigator and Making Mr. Right.


It is difficult to characterize the films of 1990s and 2000s. There is certainly more diversity of subjects and themes, but we aren't much closer to liberating Florida from preposterous stereotypes. The first film addressing an aspect of Florida history, John Singleton's Rosewood, appeared in 1997, and the second film to address Florida politics and culture, John Sayles' Sunshine State, appeared in  2002 (the first was Flash of Green in 1984). A few films were also made based on works of literature like Cross Creek and Their Eyes Were Watching God.


The contrast between these films and the Miami-centric crime movies and spring break romps reveal just how divorced Hollywood and New York filmmakers are from Florida life. The solution is of course to promote and champion more home-grown films. FSU and UCF both have well-known film schools, but from what we can tell so far, few of the films produced by students have any connection to Florida.