Film Micrœview #412: O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
03.11.2018 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult for me to separate this film from my fond childhood memories of watching it with my brother. He and I knew half the dialog by heart (well, I expect he still knows the entirety to this day, because he’s like that). I sampled the film in one of the songs I wrote growing up, and even named another song after a line from it.
I was struck as ever by the quality of the cinematography, the music, the humor, the performances, and the surreality of the adventure.
What was new for me this time around was some subtleties to the handling of race. Of course, it doesn’t bode well when the movie opens with a chain gang comprised only of dozens of black people, and then immediately it becomes apparent that all of our main characters are going to people who just escaped from this chain gang, and they are all white, even though no other white people were seen on the chain gang. Then they quickly find another black person, who is the very essence of the problematic Magic Negro trope, who gives them a ride and a vision, and they, his guests, and many and younger/stronger, don’t even help out. To top it off, in the next scene, one of the three white men writes off the vision like this: “What the hell does he know? He’s a nigger and an old man.”
I had never noticed before that this character, Everett, used a racial slur at this moment. It chills me that I never noticed that before. Maybe I had dwelled more on the humor arising from this moment in the characterization, how this guy never balks at an opportunity to wax philosophical, even if he believes the whole debate to be rationally moot from the get-go (this theme comes up frequently through the film). More likely I should just admit that I was less sensitive to racism when I was a kid. In any case, this got me thinking about racism as portrayed in this film, and I noticed something I hadn’t before. All characters who express racist thoughts are also shown to be somehow progressive. The KKK Grandmaster is the “reform” candidate running for governor. The enterprising bible salesman is in the KKK. Even the radio station manager, who is the other character to use the word ‘nigger’, is associated with advanced technology. Everett furthermore is the one who tries to profit off the popularity of black music by lying about their race to the (blind) radio station manager. We don’t really get the other main protagonists’ take on their black brothers, but Delmar at least refers to Tommy as a “colored boy” when asking the others to offer him a lift. And of course they do all pitch in to save Tommy near the climax. But I still see enough points to sketch an outline of a ethos OBWAT takes on race. I think the authors knew it would be too easy to make the backwoods white folks the racists. Too easy to write off. Not that the incumbents are not loathsome as well, but I think at least on this matter it is suggesting that change is not necessary inherently good. If Everett advocates for the New South, flooding away the old, replacing it with a more connected, more consumerist (“I’m a Dapper Dan man!”) life, maybe we’re losing something really special. Anyway, I had never realized just how much we should dislike this Everett guy until this viewing.