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Flannery film debuts on American Masters

Flannery film debuts on American Masters

Dr. Elizabeth Coffman edits a portion of her award-winning documentary, Flannery. Photo by Sydney Owens.

March 11,2021

By Genevieve Buthod

School of Communication professor Elizabeth Coffman, Ph.D., will debut her documentary, 
Flannery, nationally on the PBS show American Masters on Tuesday, March 23. It is scheduled to appear locally at 8 p.m. on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago.

The American Masters showing follows Coffman winning the first ever Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film in October 2019 for her feature-length documentary about famed Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor.

The award came with a $200,000 prize, and was chosen for first place out of 80 different film submissions. The documentary was a project initiated in 2011 by producer, co-writer and co-director the Rev. Mark Bosco, S.J.

The American Masters showing is a big step following a year of nationwide virtual screenings of Flannery during the pandemic. Coffman reflected on this and other experiences over the past year in a conversation with author Genevieve Buthod.

How does it feel to have Flannery screened on American Masters on PBS ?

I’m delighted! American Masters generally has an audience of about a million people on television. It’s a big leap going from a regional broadcast to a national show that has that kind of reach. It’s during Women’s History Month, which makes me very happy. I hired as many women as possible on the film—composer Miriam Cutler, wonderful animators, editors. Also lots of great Chicago film crew—my DP and sound design partner Ted Hardin, editors, sound mixers, researchers, publicists.  All in Chicago!

As a filmmaker, what does it mean to you to win the Library of Congress/Lavine/Ken Burns Prize?

Winning this prize was one of the best things that has happened in my life. As a filmmaker, I don’t know if it’s going to get any better than that. Someone let me know about the Ken Burns Prize and suggested I apply for it. I got our application in on the last day of the deadline.

I was waiting in my office for the phone call from the Librarian of Congress, when the call finally came from Carla Hayden--that my film Flannery had won. So I jumped up and down, screamed, ran out of the office. Dean Hong Cheng hugged me, I got to celebrate with everyone. That was in 2019. 

We got to go in October of 2019 and accept the award at the Library of Congress. While accepting I said, “This is better than winning an Academy Award.” It truly was a beautiful event. Besides Ken Burns, all kinds of national political figures were there, representatives from Georgia, former generals. It was a big Washington, D.C. event for the first year of the award. Burns and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden presented the award, which I accepted for me and for my co-producer, co-director Mark Bosco, S.J.

We made good use of the Library of Congress and the National Archives during the making of the film. I’m on the board of the Media Burn Archive here in Chicago and they helped us restore footage as did the Chicago Film Archives. I love archival footage and hired two great archival researchers, Pat Lofthouse and Laura Cohen. They were able to find footage from Georgia from that era. We have footage of people who had infiltrated the Klan. I’m from Jacksonville, Florida, so I really wanted to research and capture what was happening in the south, in Georgia, particularly during the 1950s and 60s.

The white nationalists were often the same people who went to church on Sunday. These were the people who, if they got upset at a Black person looking the wrong way, that person’s life could be in danger. That’s the situation Flannery O’Connor grew up in. But there were all these people pushing in both directions during that time--not everyone in the south was a Ku Klux Klan member. There were plenty of people (like my parents) who were pushing for integration. I wanted to give that sense of both sides fighting in the south at the time.  O’Connor was writing about it all, in her own particular “searing” style—as Joe Scarborough describes her writing.

For myself and other first-time viewers, what do you hope will be the main takeaway?

One of the main takeaways that I hope will happen is that people will see how relevant Flannery O’Connor is today. We’ve just come through a year of racial reckoning, with the George Floyd murder and protests, as well as the January 6th insurrection. The characters and the stories she was writing are really appropriate to read right now. As mentioned, Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough, is reading Flannery O’Connor.  Nick Cave quotes her name in his new 2021 album, Carnage.  Her use of dialogue and rhythm are poetic, musical.  These are examples of how relevant and engaging her fiction still is. The characters she was writing about help to explain what’s going on in America right now. It’s a history of a certain kind of U.S. denial-- religious hypocrisy and racism.

A lot of musicians appreciate Flannery O’Connor-- Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams (both have music in the film). I’m hoping that for the uninitiated, when you hear the music over the credits, you’ll hear Nebraska--the Bruce Springsteen song that he wrote after reading O’Connor. I really hope that people will try to see why so many musicians and artists like her writing. I hope our documentary engages the storytelling in a way that encourages people to read her further. Our goal from day one has been to get people to read her literature.

Where should a brand-new reader of Flannery O’Connor begin?

I would recommend the stories that people read in high school or college, like “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” That title is from the Bessie Smith song of the same name, and we have that song in the film as well. The short story “Good Country People” is one I would recommend. In that story, there’s a female character who is college-educated, she’s the know-it-all college Yankee. Then there’s the so-called “white trash” characters who aren’t that educated, who use the n-word. Characters are brought low by events that happen, but the person who may learn the hardest lesson is often the person with the most education. No one in O’Connor’s fiction gets off easy. I think people can engage with her storytelling in a lot of different ways.

Do you have a particular favorite among her short stories?

We have an outtake up on the American Masters site, as one of the extra clips you can view. O’Connor wrote this short story called “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” It’s a parody of the Atlanta premiere of the film Gone with the Wind, which was a huge Hollywood success. I really liked this outtake, because I grew up in the south, where, as a white person of privilege, watching Gone with the Wind on television, unfortunately, happened all the time. O’Connor’s story makes fun of it. It’s about an old Confederate veteran who was paraded at the Gone with the Wind event in Atlanta, which was a segregated event. Actress Hattie McDaniel, who won an Academy Award for her part, was not allowed to attend. O’Connor wrote this story about how white people romantically pictured the south, how they romanticized the Confederate flag. She did a great job deconstructing that romantic racist nostalgia. “A Late Encounter with the Enemy” is one of my favorite stories, but it’s not critically acclaimed in the same way as her others.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and a complex person and writer. How do you think her Catholicism informs her writing?  

A lot of people don’t even know she was a Catholic. Her writing was violent and vivid, whether about people or nature. In her writing, we get these people who are hypocritical, who were racist and went to church, who used the n-word a lot. People can see how deconstructive what she was doing is. There aren’t any saints in her writing. The sinners may deserve redemption, but it doesn’t come easy. She was a witness to the worst of humanity and wrote about it in a way that was engaging and thoughtful.

I grew up as Protestant in the south. I knew O’Connor because she was a great fiction writer, a storyteller. I did not personally know that she was such a devout Catholic until I made this film. She writes a lot about Protestants in her fiction; there’s not a lot of Catholics in her storytelling but there are underlying theological ideas that O’Connor writes about in her nonfiction.  I wanted a film that could relate to everybody, people of all faiths—and make it to national PBS.

O’Connor said she was writing for people who don’t believe in God. With the story of Jesus, the story of martyrdom, the story of sacrifice, we learn that even the least among us, the betrayers, can be seen with great empathy. Those who seem morally most lost. I don’t think that is particularly Catholic or Protestant, I think that’s the story of Jesus. O’Connor was into Catholic theology, she praised it and talked about it in her writing, but she really wanted to be a great writer, like Dostoyevsky or Kafka. Her storytelling gets to certain moral instincts and weaknesses. She was not a sentimentalist. She has moments of humanity and recognition in her stories. For her, it comes from an understanding of the Christ story.

Flannery O’Connor has been accused of racism in the past. Do you think there is any truth to those claims?

Paul Elie’s New Yorker article, “How Racist was Flannery O’Connor?” claims that he’s looked at new research, and that she was indeed racist, and essentially, the implication was that decades of O’Connor scholarship and our film were going too easy on her. His article was a little disingenuous.  We certainly did know the “research” and felt we addressed it in a balanced way in the film.  For the American Masters broadcast, we added back in O’Connor’s story “The Geranium” that she wrote in graduate school, that’s all about white racist characters who were confronting their own insecurities with Blackness.  Our thesis in the film is that O’Connor was confronting her own questions and feelings about race, class and difference from the very first stories she published.  And did so throughout her life.  But our film also presents actions and comments that O’Connor made about James Baldwin, as well as her feelings about “the society I live in” so the viewer may draw their own conclusions. We open the film with a warning about the use of potentially damaging language—like the “n-word”--which may be hard to hear and certainly difficult to read; language that the filmmakers—Mark and myself—do not support.
 

Do you think we can have more nuanced conversations about racism in the past? Can we add more depth to how we understand O’Connor as a person and as an author?

We have already been hosting online discussions about race, disability, faith and craft with O’Connor’s work.  Soon, Loyola University in Maryland is hosting a whole series of webinars about this which will include a viewing and discussion of Flannery. All of the people who will be speaking are in the film. And Mark Bosco and I will also be doing a conversation about it. The president of the university will be moderating the discussion. So they aren’t just backing away from O’Connor’s potential “racism,” nor the questions about this article, they’re having a discussion about it. In 2020, after the New Yorker article, Loyola Maryland changed the name of the dorm they had named after Flannery O’Connor; it’s now called Sister Thea Bowman Hall. At the time, a bunch of writers, including Alice Walker, wrote a letter to the president of Loyola University of Maryland asking them to not remove O’Connor’s name from the dorm. And now the university is confronting that question, instead of running away from it, so people can decide for themselves.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The discussion around her work has remained timely because of what’s been happening in the United States in the last year and a half. I think she’s still relevant to read and talk about today, especially with this great reckoning that the U.S. is still trying to have with race. O’Connor has also written about immigration. She has a great story called “The Displaced Person” about Polish immigrants who came to the south after WWII (I recommend that one too!) It’s about race, immigration, and difference. How people of different classes look down on each other. She highlights the tension between classes probably even more than the tension between white and Black. You see tensions between insiders and outsiders, too. People look down on each other for lots of reasons, like race, class, religion. It’s the American caste system, in the way that author Isabel Wilkerson might put it.