Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor is the subject of a rather by-the-books documentary of her life in PBS’ American Masters: Flannery.
A devout Catholic who was born and raised in rural Georgia, O’Connor’s distinctive prose detailing Southern life made her an icon of American literature. Bound to crutches by the autoimmune disease lupus, O’Connor faced hardship and challenges throughout her short life. Despite that, she amassed a portfolio that included two novels, 32 short stories, and a volume of columns and commentaries by the time of her death in 1964 at age 39. O’Connor’s work examined religion, race, and poverty, earning her the National Book Award and three O. Henry Awards for exceptional short story writing.
For the documentary, Flannery co-directors Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco were given unprecedented access to the Flannery O’Connor trust. Their examination of her personal correspondence, diaries and writings allowed for a broader insight into the inner workings of the writer’s mind. Told in typical fashion, the film follows a standard, linear timeline with little deviation from the norm.
Employing interviews with notable fans of her work like Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien, fellow authors such as Alice Walker, and several scholars, Flannery plods through the highs and lows of O’Connor’s life and career. The filmmakers fill in the blanks with rudimentary animation, archival and personal footage, and narration courtesy of Mary Steenburgen. Flannery does give viewers new insight into the personal and emotional side of the novelist—a side that her works alone could never uncover. Her relationship with her mother, her love of peacocks, and the time she raised a backwards-walking chicken are of particular note. However, despite its best efforts, Flannery never manages to imbue its subject matter with any excitement or interest and consequently is unlikely to drum up much interest in the author’s many excellent works.
O’Connor had, to be sure, a remarkable albeit short career. Though she can be seen as a trailblazing woman who embarked on a path forged by white men, she is likewise a tainted figure who has fallen out of favour in contemporary times due to her beliefs. Born in 1925, O’Connor was a true white Southerner with complicated attitudes towards race and socioeconomics. Perhaps it is because of the overarching influence of the Flannery O’Connor Trust that the filmmakers fail to deliver any meaningful criticism of when it comes to those beliefs.
Instead, her decision to testify against alleged Communists during the Red Scare is simply chalked up to being part of a plan to impress a school crush. While she was later revealed to be a stalwart segregationist, her refusal to meet with author James Baldwin at her Georgia home and her liberal use of the “N” word in her works are discussed in the doc though the filmmakers count Walker and Hilton Als among her defenders. It should be noted that their interviews (and volunteered opinions) were filmed before last year’s in-depth New Yorker article, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” (Answer: pretty racist).
Arguably a product of her time and cultural upbringing, the lack of an in-depth, modern perspective on her works and on the woman herself (as explored by the New Yorker) is where Flannery really comes up short.
O’Connor’s biography is presented in the expected perfunctory way of the American Masters series, though perhaps it feels even more bland. The quality of interview footage varies wildly given the changing production values over the years, which lends a hodgepodge-like feel to the film. Flannery brings to mind the biographies of writers I was forced to sit and memorize in English class years ago. The same anxiety builds, as if I’m expected to recite major biographical details of the author in a pop quiz.
In the end, I am not really sure who the audience of Flannery is intended to be. Though largely inoffensive, fans of her work will enjoy the personal details in her correspondence but be left wanting for more; while those unfamiliar with her may not feel inspired to discover any more than what’s here. Regardless of her personal beliefs and the ups and downs of the various cinematic windows into her world, Flannery O’Connor’s work continues to find fans and readers, well exceeding the audience she had during her short lifetime.
American Masters: Flannery airs on PBS on March 23.