For this week's Doc Talk I'd like to spotlight two highly recommended films involving the South: Ross McElwee's personal ancestry exploration from 2003, Bright Leaves, and Micki Dickoff and Tony Pagano's civil rights film Neshoba: The Price of Freedom, which finally gets a theatrical release this Friday (in NYC; next month it opens in LA).
The reason I revisited McElwee's film is primarily because of the recent death of Oscar-winning screen legend Patricia Neal (Hud), who appears briefly in the doc. But it also ended up fitting in somewhat with Neshoba, because both films deal with a Southern history, both concern events that previously inspired fictionalized Hollywood movie plots (Bright Leaf for the former, Mississippi Burning the latter) and both follow modern stories relative to the historical material.
As for Neshoba, aside from the fact that it opens this weekend, I was intrigued about the film's subject matter due a recent reference to the infamous 1964 murders of James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman on the season premiere of Mad Men, which mentioned the tragic case as a subtle way of telling the audience in what year the series was now set.
I've been a fan of Ross McElwee's work for a while, always looking to him when discussing autobiographical and other first-person docs. He's one of the few I tolerate and hold up as a contrast to lesser filmmakers like Doug Block. But it's mostly this and his most well-known work, Sherman's March, that I pay the special attention to, partly because of my affinity for stories about Southern roots.
In Bright Leaves, the filmmaker discovers that his great-grandfather, tobacco grower George McElwee, was the clear basis for Michael Curtiz's 1950 drama starring Gary Cooper in the changed-name role of Brant Royle, alongside Neal and Lauren Bacall. As he is brilliant for doing, McElwee uses the opportunity to explore himself and his heritage while also looking into a more general topic, here the issue of smoking and the tobacco industry and its history (including the real-life rivalry that inspired the Hollywood drama).
For my latest viewing of the doc, I skimmed through and ultimately skipped ahead to specifically re-watch McElwee's interview with Neal. It's great to be able to see the actress in her late years in such a candid and casual way, but I couldn't help but think it's a little out of place and unnecessary. I was kind of reminded of Michael Moore's exploitative interview with Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine, if only because Neal seems unaware of the true nature of the interview, which is of course more about McElwee than her. What, really, is she going to say about his idea that she basically portrayed his great-grandmother?
There is, however, the rare address of the concept that old fiction movies can also function as historical documentary, in the way they show us actual images of the past. For instance, McElwee asks Neal if she thinks of Bright Leaf as a sort of home movie because it features her younger self and the true love of her life (and, as McElwee shows us, fascinating subtle imprint of Neal's behind-the-scenes romance with Cooper), and he wonders if it helps her remember that time from half a century ago -- she disappoints him by saying no.
If it's any consolation, though, I definitely agree with McElwee, and it's theories like this and the related idea that Bright Leaf functions as a kind of dramatized home movie for/of his own relatives that keep me more interested in his films even as I grow annoyed with most of his copycats.
Neshoba: The Price of Freedom
I wasn't expecting much with this doc. It's unfortunately not a high-profile film and nearly escaped my radar. But what starts out as a fairly by-the-books non-fiction film builds into a very necessary entry into the genre of human rights documentaries. It's far more than just a civil rights history; Neshoba explores the sad truth about Southern racism and the continued struggle for reparation and justice 40 years after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
According to the Wikipedia entry about the three murdered men, prior to this film there was another documentary that reopened the case and led to the 2005 trial of then-80-year-old Edgar Ray Killen. That film, which was made by high school students and their teacher, with collaboration from journalist Jerry Mitchell, doesn't seem available, though it's important to recognize it as a possible Thin Blue Line-level piece of investigative documentary.
Dickoff and Pagano's film seems to come in just after that project, primarily covering Killen's trial and how the people of Mississippi's Neshoba County reacted to the reinvestigation and renewed negative spotlight on their area. Neshoba is most remarkable, in fact, for the honesty of locals who remark on the case as being unnecessary because "what's done is done."
This, added to the documentary's seemingly unbiased interviews with the boldly forthright Killen and other stunning statements from Klu Klux Klan members who ironically believe they're victims of prejudice and are granted no rights in this country, make the film a must-see for anyone concerned with the state of tolerance in the U.S. It's also especially significant because the film starts out with mostly archival footage from 1964 and it's hard enough to hear the people of that time using the "N word" and spouting racist commentary. Then for relatively contemporary footage to feature similar speech is amazing.
Dickoff and Pagano also surprise you by being so objective with their film, as any great legal trial doc should be so balanced. Ultimately, though, Neshoba is hard to classify in terms of non-fiction genres. It's a terrific blend of historical, ethnological, legal, human rights watch and biographical portrait film, and depending on what side you're on, it (spoiler alert!) has a fairly happy ending.
Bright Leaves is available on DVD and Netflix "Watch Instantly."
Neshoba: The Price of Freedom opens at NYC's Cinema Village this Friday and in Los Angeles September 10. If you can't see it in the theater, definitely look for it later on DVD.