It should not have taken me twenty years to get around to seeing Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, especially since I have always loved the music in it and, unlike what rumor and Wikipedia say about the Coen Brothers, have, in fact, read The Odyssey.
But now I have remedied this error and the experience has left me edified, glorified, and deeply unsettled.
The Coens as writers and George Clooney as an actor have, I think, nailed Odysseus. Like Ulysses Everett McGill, he was a dapper (at least in his own mind) con man. So that was edifying.
Hearing Ralph Stanley sing “Oh, Death” is one of the great musical experiences of all time. That, coupled with a great deal of the rest of the music, was downright glorifying.
The fact that “Oh, Death” was sung at a Ku Klux Klan lynching rally that looked as if he had been choreographed by Leni Riefenstahl for Triumph of the Will was just one of the deeply unsettling things in this movie. More on the unsettling parts later.
The bits of U.S. depression-era history and stories dropped into the movie were among the many entertaining bits. That period is before my time, but was recent enough past for my parents and grandparents, so I grew up on the stories.
The Mississippi governor in the movie is Pappy O’Daniel (according to Wikipedia his first name in the movie is Menelaus). The real Pappy O’Daniel was governor of Texas (and later senator) and also, as in this movie, a musician. (Look up the Light Crust Doughboys as well as O’Daniel.)
The three main characters, all White prison escapees, pick up a Black guitar player named Tommy Johnson on the road. Tommy informs them that he has just sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads for the ability to play guitar. While this story is most often told of the great blues man Robert Johnson, it was apparently also told about Tommy Johnson, another very accomplished musician of the time.
The flooding scene at the end reminds us that this was the time when the TVA was building dams all across that part of rural America to bring electricity to places still living in the 19th century.
And I particularly loved it when Everett is thrown out of Woolworth’s for all time and wants to know if that applies to all Woolworth stores or just this one. Woolworth’s was still a big five and dime chain when I was a kid. For those of you too young to remember such things, the five and dimes were a cross between dollar stories and big box stores, but had more character than either one (in their own weird way).
The music gets at the very heart and soul of our culture in the U.S. It’s folk that leads into country, the blues growing out of the same place, the meeting place of Black and White in a country scarred by slavery and Jim Crow. I can’t describe it accurately, but recommend that you listen to it.
This movie doesn’t even come close to passing the Bechdel Test, which is no real surprise given both the source material and the setting. While I always want more stories about women, this is one of the few times that issue didn’t really bother me, perhaps because of the satirical tone of the whole enterprise. (I don’t want to be a character in this movie.) Also, Everett’s wife who was and perhaps wife-to-be-again Penny, while we don’t get enough of her, is certainly one of the strongest people in it.
It is also a story about White people built on the landscape of Jim Crow, which is itself unsettling. Most of the men on the chain gang are Black, but our heroes are White. There’s a huge Klan rally, and even though the candidate for governor who turns out to lead lynch mobs in his spare time is run out of town on a rail, it’s pretty clear that nothing is going to change on that front.
But the part of the story that left me most unsettled was the accepted culture, both social and political, of the time. It was not only racist, but deeply corrupt throughout.
The heroes aren’t good men — they were in prison for a reason — but they are far from the worst people in the movie. Neither the current governor nor his opponent is a good man. The Bible salesman (a nice turn by John Goodman evoking the Cyclops from the Odyssey) seems to hurt people for the hell of it.
And the police are perhaps the most corrupt of all. It’s possible the sheriff chasing them really is the Devil incarnate.
The story is satirical, but all the elements in it are part of the history I grew up with, including the corruption. It is not hard to see how people who accepted that society are unable to believe that anything can be done about it and willing to go along with corrupt leaders who pretend to be strong or who mock their opponents.
At its core, this movie exposes deep corruption in our society existing alongside great works of art like “Oh, Death” and “I’ll Fly Away.” It explains our current disasters all too well.
Perhaps that, too, is rooted in The Odyssey. I’m just starting to read Emily Wilson’s new translation of that work. I’ll let you know what I think about that when I’m finished.