The new PBS documentary Flannery is the collaboration of filmmakers Mark Bosco and Elizabeth Coffman.
The film is a biography of one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th Century, Flannery O’Connor, who passed away in 1964 at the age of 39 after having suffered a lifelong struggle with Lupus.
While she is known and admired among literary and scholarly circles, she is a major writer who perhaps falls short of being a household name like many of her contemporaries.
The film Flannery will change all that.
It is a beautifully constructed work, funded by NEH, on a par with other award-winning installments of the prestigious American Masters series on PBS.
The project began when Mark Bosco, a student and fan of Flannery’s work, acquired interviews that had been conducted with friends and family in the 1990s.
He knew that they could be the backbone of a great bio-doc.
Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Coffman agreed.
Together, they applied for and received an NEH grand and moved forward, sharing the responsibilities of producing, writing and directing.
In addition to the funding, Bosco and Coffman also received the sole support of Flannery O’Connor’s trust.
They were the first filmmakers granted permission to do a biographical adaptation.
Coffman felt a personal connection with Flamerty’s work. Flannery was born and raised in Georgia, where she eventually returned to spend the final years of her life.
Coffman was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida.
Both were women of the south who had first-hand experience of the history and politics of growing up in that environment.
In Coffman’s words, their shared experience was with "the great American sins of The Civil War and slavery.”
Bosco points out that Flannery was “the product of a southern, white, privileged, white racist community, um, and you see those contradictions in her, almost as if she's a recovering racist herself, recovering from the fact of her white privilege and exploring that with all the white racists in her own stories."
In addition to deeply religious underpinnings of her work, stemming from her Catholic upbringing, Flannery’s work reflects the attitudes and prejudices of her time and place in history.
And that includes language deemed unacceptable today. Her use of the “N-word” became a point of discussion regarding the content of the film.
The word appears in her stories and is even the title of one of her acclaimed short stories (The Artificial Nigger).
The filmmakers decided to include the language and references in the spirit of telling the story accurately and truthfully, knowing that some viewers might be offended by the ethnic slur.
For the record, the issue is part of the discussion covered in the filmed interviews in the movie.
A content warning appears at the beginning of the film.
The filmmakers point out that Flannery used the language, considered offensive even in her day, very intentionally, knowing the impact it would have.
Bosco observes that, in his view, she seemed to be “a recovering racist.”
Rather than mere sensationalism or shock value, Flannery’s intention seems to be to draw attention to the issues of racism through unflinching journalistic truth and perhaps a bit of deliberate and disturbing satire.
Perceived racism aside, what Flannery is perhaps best know for is her signature style of narration, moving from a comedic tone to sinister brutality and violence, perhaps best illustrated in her novel A Good Man is Hard to Find.
In Bosco’s words, “she really takes readers on a ride,” which might be considered an understatement.
Flannery’s work is bold, fearless and unique. She was a writer among writers.
Flannery is a fitting tribute to a major American talent.
It offers a wealth of well-researched material including photos, home movies, rare television clips and interviews with the people who knew her.
It also includes wonderfully creative touches in terms of first-rate cinematography by Ted Hardin and the incorporation of cartoons and animation from Natalie Barahona, Kathleen Judge and Heidi Kumao.
The artwork is a reflection to some of Flannery’s early drawings and cartoons and her childhood plans to someday be a serious writer who would support herself by drawing political cartoons for publications like The New Yorker.
The soundtrack is equally stellar with original music from Miriam Cutler and songs from contemporary recording giants like Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen.
Flannery is an exceptional PBS documentary about an American literary treasure.
Her life story is as intriguing and entertaining as the body of work she left behind.
Thanks to this film, neither will be forgotten.
Flannery arrives in virtual cinemas July 17. The full list is available here.