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Review: 'Flannery'

A good biography is worth watching.

The History Channel banked on that years ago when it created the very successful Biography Channel.

We love interesting stories about interesting people. Oftentimes, real life can eclipse fiction when it comes to juicy entertainment.

Such is the case of the new PBS biographical documentary Flannery about the life of acclaimed novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor.

Her short stories include The River, The Displaced Person, Black Hearts Bleed Red and A Good Man is Hard to Find.

Several of them were adapted to television. Her novel Wise Blood became a John Houston movie in 1979.

Flannery traces her early life, growing up in Savanna, Georgia to her death at the age of 39 in Milledgeville, Georgia in 1964.

Like her beloved father who passed away when she was just 15, she suffered and died of complications from lupus.

It’s a pretty remarkable story about a remarkable woman who began gaining notoriety at the age of five when a Pathe News camera crew filmed one of her pet chickens who was able to walk backwards.

The clip is featured in the movie, as are rare home movies, family album photographs and a rare television interview.

Also featured in the film are drawings and cartoons from the young Flannery who envisioned growing up to be a serious writer who would support herself by drawing political cartoons.

Flannery grew up as an only child in an Irish Catholic family.

Growing up in the South, Catholics, Jews and African Americans were all in the proverbial cross hairs of the KKK.

She learned to handle rejection based on her religious beliefs as well as the rejection of her work, which was troubling deep and dark and distinctively personal.

As with virtually all PBS American Masters series productions, this one is thoroughly researched and brilliantly produced.

It is both richly informative and highly entertaining.

It pushes the limits of straightforward documentary filmmaking with the inclusion of shots meant for the sake of art as well as historical fact.

It’s fascinating to watch for the sheer beauty of the photography.

Flowers, close-ups of vintage typewriter keys, a shot of a surreal doorframe with beautiful trees and foliage in the background, all add a purely creative dimension to the storytelling.

The narration, interviews and music tracks perfectly support the narration.

Songs range from period appropriate tunes to the contemporary work of Lucinda Williams and Bruce Springsteen.

On a production level, Flannery is the kind of quality you expect from a well-budgeted PBS production. With regard to style, it is absolutely first-rate.

With regard to content, Flannery deserves credit for its boldness and courage in tackling a story that many might consider to be controversial in light of the current political climate.

While Flannery O’Connor’s stories all share a deeply religious core, they also reflect the racial attitudes of the times with remarkable frankness.

Inevitably, the documentary will raise eyebrows and raise concerns about her racially-charged storylines and the use of “the N-word” in the body of her work including the very title of one of her short stories.

While she unflinchingly holds a mirror to the politics and attitudes of her times, her shocking, satirical frankness is sure to set of set of the kind of reaction that lead to the reassessment of other works of literature like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.

For the record, these concerns are addressed in the interviews that appear in Flannery.

For those unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor or her work, the movie is a revealing look at both.

Her struggling rise to notoriety, recognition and acceptance in a post-war men’s world of writers is worth watching. She’s an unstoppable force.

The deep dive in to the disturbing story elements of her work is also a reason to check out the PBS documentary Flannery.

She’s been called one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.

Flannery will make you a believer.


Flannery opens in vrtual cinemas Friday, July 17. Click here for listings.

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