There has rarely been a time in literary history where the writings of Flannery O’Connor were not problematic to some. That being said, there also hasn’t been a time when her words didn’t reveal something about Southern living that perhaps even those in the South didn’t want revealed, whether it was about their way of speaking or their way of thinking. As directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, the new documentary Flannery thankfully does not avoid these controversies, and instead provides multiple perspectives as to why O’Connor felt it was so important to tell these stories and turn a mirror on Southern society that both embraced her upbringing (specifically in Andalusia, Georgia) and provided clear and precise examples of its deep flaws.
Winner of the first-ever Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, Flannery provides an immersive experience using rare archival footage, newly discovered personal letters, and even bits of animation (alongside published writings) to piece together a fairly complete portrait of her life growing up on a farm in a large family as part of a community that had very clear ideas about race relations (and used all the words that hurt to hear to express those ideas). Mary Steenburgen turns up her native Arkansas accent to read O’Connor’s words and give us a better sense of the spirit in which they were intended. We learn that the writer would sometimes liberally use the N-word not just to authentically capture the speech of those around her, but because to use any other word would be disingenuous in portraying them. She was being both critical and protective in a way that still continues to baffle people. Admittedly, it’s interesting her hear other writers, like Alice Walker (The Color Purple), defend O’Connor’s writing and choice of vocabulary in the name of artistic realism.
Flannery also goes through the elements in O’Connor’s life that fed into each of her novels, and even uses clips from director John Huston’s 1979 adaptation of her Wise Blood to further drive home the messages of her stories. Naturally, we also get analysis from more familiar enthusiasts like Tommy Lee Jones, Conan O’Brien and Tobias Wolff, and while having their faces present keeps the star power beaming, I’m not sure any of them add anything essential to the dissection of O’Connor’s work.
An American Masters presentation, the film paints a fairly sad and isolated portrait of its subject, but there are flashes of love in her life, however fleeting, as well as meaningful friendships that seemed to inspire her as she got older and came to the realization that she would likely never get married. It’s probably no coincidence that some of her best friends saw being unattached as a distinct advantage.
The film excels when we get to hear O’Connor speak for herself, either in her prose or in the one televised interview that exists, in which she make the distinction between being a writer from the South and being a Southern writer. And there are few like her whose works make the difference abundantly clear. She also dabbled in stories of murder, religion and those so far on the outskirts of society, they would have labeled “freaks”—not bad for a devout Catholic girl—and she did so with a strangely comforting sense of humor to make some of her most serious points. If the mission of the filmmakers was to get people interested in reading her works again, they’ve done admirable work.
Flannery is now streaming in virtual cinemas; in Chicago, see it via the American Writers Museum.
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