What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America
Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .
The one-eyed dude abides.
Well actually, John Goodman, playing bible salesman Big Dan Teague, doesn't so much abide, as he assails.
Breaking a massive branch right off the tree for use as club, Teague wallops two main protagonists in a scene that has become a hallmark of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? The scene is film school clip-effective. Teague, only slightly taller than George Clooney's Ulysses Everett McGill, seems to tower over his victims, thanks to careful camera angles. For a moment, Teague seems to embody Polyphemus, Homer's massive mountain of a cyclops, as he robs the two men of their ill-gotten aims.
Yes, the general outline of the Greek epic is there, but there is much more. First, there is the swipe at Bible Belt morality; Teague admits early in the scene that he's only in the scripture trade for the money. Then there's the cartoon-like violence—Tom and Jerry skirting the contours of the Classics Illustrated-version of the Odyssey with some allusions to Twain. Finally, there's the sly nod to the amphibian-focused sadism of the Beavis and Butthead characters as first introduced in Mike Judge's 1992 festival short, Frog Baseball.
Unlike in the epic, however, Ulysses Everett and Delmar O'Donnell (Tim Blake Nelson) don't outwit the big galoot. Teague prevails. Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society.
John Goodman as Big Dan Teague (IMDB)
October marks the 20th anniversary of US theatrical release of the Coens' first music-focused comedy. Although initial reviews were mixed, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has weathered well, becoming, next to 1998's The Big Lebowski, perhaps the most universally loved of the Coens' films even if critics at the time, such as Roger Ebert, wondered whether the brothers left too many threads incomplete. One can hardly quibble with Ebert. A music-packed satire that stages Homer's Odyssey in the Jim Crow South, created in part to answer the philosophical ponderings of a 1940s screwball comedy? That must have been one hell of a pitch meeting.
These unfinished but occasionally brilliant threads nevertheless are what is most endearing about the film. A perfect film, no. But one that even my 11-year-old son thinks is hilarious and which raises interesting questions about what it means to be a decent human being in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police violence, yes.
My interest in the film's flaws and strengths led me to incorporate O Brother into a college topics class that I periodically teach about the culture, music, and political history of the South during the first half of the 20th century.
The decision to center the class around the film didn't come easily. The first time we watched it, I worried that the larger-than-life storytelling style—a facet early reviewers derided as fluff—might present a false view of a region already subject to too much caricature. But as the students and I dug deeper, we realized that dissecting the film led us to greater insights about the untruths surrounding some of the myths about the South as well as the legacy and the origins of actual Southern mythologies such as Stagger Lee and John Henry. We also concluded that key institutions depicted in the film such as the racist Solid South political system and the notable offspring of that system, such as Huey Long and Memphis Boss Edward "Red Snapper" Crump were indeed deserving of the caricature.
The most obvious byproduct of the film is a mini-folk revival that encourages Americans to revisit the blues and reclaim overlooked genres such as bluegrass. Listeners today may still be navigating the half-life of this resurgence in the lingering radio yawp of Caamp, the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and their imitators.
But beyond reviving interest in musical Americana, the film gets many things right about the American South. At first glance, the politicians in O Brother appear to be cartoonish, attention-seeking buffoons who seem to have no parallel in postwar American history. I mean, putting yourself back in the year 2000, could you imagine Bob Dole or Al Gore acting like that?
Now, in these times of the Trump administration, we understand that cartoonish buffoons not only capture attention but get elected to the highest offices in the land. From a historical standpoint, we now know that large segments of the country have been electing cads for some time, many of whom, like governors Pappy O'Daniel in Texas (memorably depicted by Charles Dunning in the film), Jimmie Davis in Louisiana, Big Jim Folsom in Alabama, and Fiddlin' Bob Taylor in Tennessee, actually performed country music to get elected.
These figures, so deftly satirized in O Brother, were pioneers in combining celebrity, entertainment, and political ambitions generations before Ronald Reagan, Trump, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, as I relate in my recent book I'd Fight the World: A Political History of Old Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music. Like villain Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) in the film, Big Jim even hauled out a bucket and mop pledging to "clean out the capitol", some 68 years before Trump and his promises about draining the Washington, D.C. "swamp".
Then there's the Greek mythology thing. The Coens must have been divining the fustiest crannies of Southern gentility when writing that—for upper-class white Southerners in the late 19th and early 20th century were simply gaga for the Classics. We all know of the Doric columns on Gone with the Wind's Terra, but four Southern cities and college towns were vying to be "Athens of the South" while builders were erecting Greek-influenced Plantation Revival architecture faster than Huey Long could skim the Louisiana state coffers. Nashville even erected a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, complete with an intact 40 foot tall statue of the goddess Athena!
You see, when the planters of the Old South met up with the industrialists of the New, Ancient Greece was appealing: a mythically democratic yet decidedly nonegalitarian slave-owning society. The Confederate monuments that protestors are toppling today are often drawn from the same font of Greco-Roman influences, especially in their depictions of women as goddesses and allegorical figures.
O Brother falls down a bit when it comes to actual depictions of Black people. Critics such as Matthew W. Hughey have attacked the film for offering abbreviated and uni-dimensional portraits of its few notable Black characters: bluesman Tommy Johnson and an unnamed blind seer. The Johnson character, an on-again-off-again comrade of the three white heroes played by talented musician Chris Thomas King, is a mashup of the real-life blues performers Tommy Johnson and Robert Johnson, whose supposed deal with the devil O Brother touts uncritically. The blind prophet (Lee Weaver), on the other hand, can be read as a simple spinoff of the "Magical Negro", that silver screen stereotype whose race appears to give him affinity with strange or spiritual forces.
I reached out to Grammy-winning artist Rhiannon Giddens on this question, wondering what a working musician who has done a lot to educate the public on the African American sources of country, bluegrass, and traditional music thought about the depictions in the film. Giddens said that while the music of O Brother had a "huge impact" on her, she too feels circumspect about the way Black music and culture was portrayed in the film. "Unfortunately the portrayal of black music followed the same old tropes," she says, "but they are very strong tropes that have been forced upon the American narrative and we are only just beginning to challenge and dismantle them in a significant way."
My students weren't especially upset at these depictions and the way they contributed to the softly anti-racist arc of the film. They didn't expect much more from Hollywood, but they also wished there was more screen time for Black characters and more attention to the storylines connected to Black music history. Several told me they appreciated the way the film introduced them, as hip-hop fans, to music their grandparents performed or were partial too. Many were excited about the way our class challenged them to make connections between contemporary releases and older forms of the blues and gospel.
The film's depictions of women are likewise somewhat weak. Penny, played by Holly Hunter and loosely based on Homer's Penelope, makes a few appearances and exerts a smidgeon of agency over her life, but her personal choices are erratic and barely rise above the stereotype offered in the original epic.
Perhaps next to the cyclops affair, one of the more memorable scenes involves three backwoods Sirens, expertly voiced but not portrayed by Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, and Gillian Welch. Bathing in a river, the three Sirens lull Ulysses, Delmar, and Pete to sleep with their highly sexualized version of "Didn't Leave Nobody But the Baby". One of the students in my class noticed in her paper that the song, a slave lullaby often titled "Go to Sleep Little Baby," stemmed way back in Black southern folk culture. She was particularly struck by Bessie Jones's version and her explanation about how it reflects a precious, perhaps stolen, moment between a Black mother and child. That something so personal is used commercially to support the most sexualized scene in the movie just didn't sit so well, when the class talked about it.
There are, of course, other threads that the film gets right. The critique of the carceral state and police brutality, though brief, is compelling. I noticed when preparing for the class that the prominently-placed Dapper Dap pomade probably draws from a real-life cosmetic, Sweet Georgia Brown pomade, marketed by the Valmor Products Co. to African Americans in the early to mid-20th century. Ulysses Everett's devotion to this product and his use of a hair net, as my students observe, gives new dimension to the accusations made by the cinematic villain Homer Stokes that the three heroes are of "miscegenated" origins.
Other subthemes age surprisingly well: the satire, for instance, aimed at the zany Oz-like Klansmen who march in strange formations and could probably O-wee-o their own with the best of today's cowardly groypers and armchair alt-right trolls. The unsettling aspect is the renewed visibility of such miscreants, whether spreading antisemitic conspiracies on social media or carrying Tiki torches, as they did in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.
Political writer and podcaster Mark Hemingway similarly has pointed out that the film makes profound distinctions between thoughtful, authentic Christianity and the superficial Lotus Eater-like faith of those mesmerized by "Down to the River to Pray".
But of course, there are threads that run afoul. The size-ism of the Stokes rally seems frankly just plain embarrassing today.
Not everything holds up in this film's critique of the American South. Not everything passes the test of time. But it still touches us in deep and important ways, making us think about how myth, history, and cultural inheritances filter into the present, and about what elements of myth and history we choose to hold onto.
It's important to remember that when the Coens released O Brother on the heels of the 1999 Seattle World Trade Organization protests, they were partially trying to answer director Preston Sturges's query about the meanings of art in Sullivan's Travels (1941), the movie from which O Brother inherits its title. Sturges poses the question of whether challenging audiences to respond politically to stark realities is more effective in making the world a better place than simply making audiences laugh.
The Coens' rejoinder, it seems, is that comedy can make life more enjoyable and provoke thoughtful conversations about the associations between history and injustice—just as long as the storyline is immersed in old-timey music magic and a digitally-corrected yellow-sepia tone. Given the COVID-19 quarantine and the seemingly never-ending onslaught of bad news these days, perhaps blending a little joyful nostalgia with an appeal to thought and action is not the worst combination one can imagine.
Perhaps O Brother's appeal lies in these compelling but unfinished threads, which surprise us and make us hunger to learn more. Or perhaps we enjoy the film because we are a broken society, still waiting to be perfected and finished like the film itself. As Clooney in his role as Ulysses notes: "it's a fool that looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart."
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