In a time when Southern communities are reckoning with the ugly legacy of racism, native Southerners (including myself) are wrestling, as we often have, with the region’s rich and difficult complexities, as well as the ways in which we can feel haunted by a past that embodies trauma and beauty in equal measures.
Perhaps the necessity of living with difficult, even contradictory, parts of Southern identity is one reason that Flannery O’Connor became an early staple of my reading life. Here was a writer who captured the darkness and grace of the South while refusing to simplify or shy away from the twisting, thorny and seductive paths through culture and history that Southerners have walked. In Flannery, the honest, charming and ultimately reverential documentary by directors Elizabeth Coffman (Veins in the Gulf) and Mark Bosco, we get to meet one of the region’s most iconic storytellers and learn that her own narrative is just as worthy of attention as the ones she told.
The film intersperses episodes of O’Connor’s life with excerpts from her fiction and letters read by Mary Steenbergen. It also includes interviews with the writer’s friends and family members. We hear from cousins, classmates, mentors and would-be lovers, as well as academics, biographers, journalists and celebrities ranging from Tommy Lee Jones to New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als as they share their admiration for this singular author.
Whimsical animations, perhaps inspired by O’Connor’s own delightful cartoons, accompany many of the story excerpts, even when the material traverses such bleak subjects as disability, racism, transphobia and murder. But then, O’Connor’s ability to see grace in humanity’s darkest moments was always her gift, and the film repeatedly makes that artistic gift clear. A deserved amount of time is spent on both “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” perhaps her most famous short story, and her novel Wise Blood. The documentary points out that, without being paradoxical, both works end in terribly violent acts that simultaneously strengthen, rather than diminish, our hope for humanity.
Faith was always central for O’Connor, whose Catholic beliefs made her feel ostracized in Protestant Georgia, and is at the heart of this film. Brad Dourif, who plays Wise Blood protagonist Hazel Motes in John Huston’s 1979 feature film adaptation, shares a particularly delightful anecdote about how the director, an atheist, was hoodwinked by the novel’s surprising take on religion.
Throughout Flannery, faith and other themes of O’Connor’s fiction are examined in the context of her body of work, the author’s life — and sometimes her literal physical body. We follow along as lupus, which killed her father, slowly takes her own mobility, forcing her to leave a life among the literati of New York City and return to Andalusia, the family farm in Milledgeville, Ga. Embedded in the South, however, she became its finest reporter, documenting the struggles of its people in her wry, Southern Gothic way.
While complimentary overall, the filmmakers thankfully don’t shy away from less socially acceptable details of O’Connor’s biography. An entire segment is devoted to the theme of racism and her use of “the n-word” in her writing, a reason why she’s still excluded from certain reading lists today. Nevertheless, the film is quick to note that she saw herself as a documentarian, reflecting the world as it was, but also subtly, and sometimes trickily, nodding to a better way. She was, and continues to be, a conversation starter, and this vibrant account of her life and work is a wonderful opener.
Available to rent starting July 17 via fineartstheatre.com and grailmoviehouse.com