Listen to a podcast reading of this review and additional commentary from Jeffrey Overstreet at the new Looking Closer podcast.

How I wish this film had been available last winter when my Seattle Pacific University students and I were politely arguing about Flannery O’Connor.

From January to March, I taught a course at Seattle Pacific University on literature and faith, and an introduction to O’Connor’s short stories — we read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Revelation” — was one of the main events. I showed a few videos of interviews with scholars who praise her. I showed an archival video of the National Book Award winner as a child: In 1932, she made the news because she had a pet chicken who could walk backwards. That set us up to talk about her eventual enthusiasm for pet peacocks. But what I really wanted was a vivid, compelling documentary, or a well-researched biopic as striking as the depiction of Emily Dickinson in Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion. (In view of how often I hear O’Connor’s influence in the Coen brothers’ films, I’d love to see them take on a Flannery film.) To date, the only feature-length project worth talking about has been John Huston’s Wise Blood, but that’s the kind of film that could scare people off from O’Connor forever if they’re not prepared for it. O’Connor is such an intriguing, controversial, and compelling character on the stage of American literature, she deserves a variety of portraits.

Alas, I couldn’t find anything sufficient to make an engaging multi-media case for my class of O’Connor’s relevance.

My timing for teaching O’Connor’s work was either perfect or terrible, depending on your point of view: Pop culture has been stormy lately with the rise of “Cancel Culture.” If you’ve been self-isolating from the zeitgeist: Cancel culture is a term referring to sneaker waves of popular opinion that rise up — primarily on social media — with demands to silence and erase important cultural figures, banishing them from respectful consideration altogether due to a sudden spotlight on something they’ve done or said that is judged as inappropriate or offensive. For example: J.K. Rowling? CANCELED — in spite of the fact that generations are in love with her literary legacy, and countless kids learned to love reading because of her Harry Potter books. Why? Because she revealed an unpopular perspective on gender.

I’m with Nick Cave on Cancel Culture: It represents the worst in human nature — a self-righteous negation of someone’s complex humanity over one point of disagreement without any attention to nuance, dialogue, relationship, or appreciation of difference. It’s a way of saying “You must check all the boxes on what I consider right and proper or I’m actively seeking to delete you from the world.” Evangelical Christian culture is very, very good at this kind of rash judgement, and has been for a long time, and it has only served to amplify their reputation as a spiteful people possessed by a spirit of condemnation — that is to say, an Anti-Christ attitude.

I worried that Cancel Culture might happen to Flannery O’Connor, and a debate over her work that has been simmering for decades suddenly flared up into a blaze in 2020 with New Yorker article by Paul Elie and several substantial responses like this one. But my class was ahead of the trend: No sooner had these students ventured into O’Connor’s stories than someone opined that we should cancel O’Connor. The stories were too offensive. The White Establishment was just making excuses for the inexcusable. Attention to her stories would only pour salt into open wounds.

Flannery O’Connor in the driveway at Andalusia, 1962. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Joe McTyre)

And now, a little too late to help my class, here comes Flannery — a documentary directed by Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco. This spirited, informative, elegant overview of the Roman Catholic writer’s fascinating life story makes a strong case for her genius and her ongoing relevance. While it reveals very little that will surprise O’Connor scholars, it narrates her complex history, style, and personality with efficiency and creativity, pausing at all of the obligatory landmarks while also taking us off-road to visit lesser-known spots, visit with friends and family and colleagues and critics, and zoom in on what makes her storytelling so distinctive.

The film’s greatest gift is its gallery of insight from experts as diverse as Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s friend); her publishing partner Robert Giroux; Ashley Brown, founding editor of Shenandoah; Marshall Bruce Gentry of Georgia College and State University; actor Tommy Lee Jones; comedian Conan O’Brien; memoirist Mary Karr; the great journalist and memoirist Richard Rodriguez; and such prominent African American writers as The New Yorker‘s Hilton Als and O’Connor’s literal neighbor — Alice Walker.

In fact, Walker herself makes a concise but impassioned defense of O’Connor’s work: “If you just see the Southern writers, generally — the white southern writers — on the basis of more or less their racism, which is there… nobody should be locked into ideologies that they were born into and they often were were not able to see. So the writers get sold down the river, too.”

Flannery O’Connor. Author. Photo: Joe McTyre.

Another feature of Flannery is the way the filmmakers infuse imagination and energy into Ye Olde Talking Heads Documentary Format with colorful illustrations that take hints from O’Connor’s own cartooning, animating scenes from both her stories and her life.

Still, at 97 minutes, the film feels like more than two hours, and I suspect that playing the full film to a class of undergraduates might weary their attention due to its conventionality and its preponderance of testimony. For insights on (and from) O’Connor, it’s a four-star affair; for documentary artistry, it’s more of a three-star deal. While I wish I had been able to share this with my class, I am still waiting for the Great Flannery Film — something that will do for O’Connor what I’m Not There does for Bob Dylan.

Nevertheless, I’m recommending the film to everyone — curious beginners, O’Connor’s admiring fans, and especially teachers as a worthwhile contribution to any conversation.

Full disclosure: Despite her flaws — a surprising fact of human nature: we all have them — few artists have inspired and influenced my life, my faith, and my creative work like Flannery O’Connor. Two of my lifelong passions are also hers: Exposing the prevalence of insidious hatreds and hypocrisies in Christian culture, and at the same time proclaiming the world-saving truth of Christ’s Gospel, a message of God’s love and grace that can and should set us free from all hatred and hypocrisy. So I am eager to draw readers into the thick of her Southern Gothic stories.

I know full well the trouble I’m courting in doing so: I’m wide awake to O’Connor’s struggle with the fierce racism of the culture into which she was born, in which she grew up, and which she came to resist in the American South. And I am equally aware that she did not live a life unstained by that sin. I’m not sure it would have been possible to be white in the American South and completely avoid the racism woven into the language, lessons, laws, and traditions of that world. (In the same vein, I have been influenced by the cultural hatreds of the conservative evangelical culture in which I grew up, and have been guilty of hypocrisies common in that context. Should I be canceled?)

To study O’Connor’s stories is to read about all kinds of racial prejudice, and to witness acts of physical, verbal, psychological, and spiritual violence. Having made this clear at the beginning of the course, I refused to drop O’Connor from the syllabus until we had brought some intellectual rigor to the matter at hand. I posed this question to my students: Isn’t there a difference between an artist condoning evil and an artist exposing it? We pressed on — with clear disagreement in the room.

The class struggled uncomfortably with both stories (and I doubt any good reader is ever comfortable with O’Connor). And I found it difficult to give sufficient class time to exploring the poetry within those stories and the artistry in her character development because we were so frequently wrestling with whether her stories, laced with occurrences of ‘the n-word’ and other slurs, deserved our attention or not.

A finished portrait of a Roman Catholic soul who remained a “work-in-progress” until her untimely departure.

If we reserve our attention for only those artists we deem as Morally Blameless, we expose our own ignorance that there is no such thing. And we discredit those artists who are waking up to the very environmental toxins that that corrupt them, and who are beginning to kindle some kind of heat and light that will eventually help expose and purge those toxins. Artmaking is a process, after all — artists make art as a process of discovery, and often grow and change in response to those discoveries. With O’Connor as with any artist, the art is an enigma alive with the artist’s DNA and that of the world around her, including her artistic influences, her landscapes, and, I would argue, some evidence of the God who made her. I appreciate how O’Connor’s stories give us images of a shockingly broken world and an even more shockingly powerful grace. Her understanding and embodiment of Christian faith is so much more authentic and so much more courageous than almost other all other writers I’ve ever read. And her devotion to Jesus is clearly the source of her enlightenment on matters of race, an enlightenment that was liberating her from most — if not all — of racism’s influence.

To put it bluntly, I can’t imagine an adequate course in Christianity and literature that doesn’t wrestle with O’Connor.

But don’t prioritize my white-American-male take. Better to listen to the testimony most unfortunately missing from this film: the voice of Toni Morrison. In her book The Origin of Others, Morrison argues that discrimination is a social construct: “How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example.” She then goes on to spotlight “The Artificial Nigger,” O’Connor’s 1955 short story in which a man tries to indoctrinate his nephew in an attitude of racism. While some of my students will immediately disregard the story for its title, the title itself points to the fundamental misconception that ends up damning the story’s main character — an evangelist of hate.

Shouldn’t the praise of a literary giant like Toni Morrison give us pause before canceling the artist in question? If she who is arguably American literature’s most accomplished African American novelist finds O’Connor’s fiction to be essential literature on the matter of race, surely that is enough to keep O’Connor’s work on the table for serious critical scrutiny, if not to ensure its canonical permanence.

And there’s this LitHub interview with Morrison from just a few years ago:

NM: You know, when I was growing up I thought you had to be at least 50 to write novels. I thought it wasn’t allowed, like it was against the law or something.

TM: I’ve read some fantastic ones who have written a lot but dropped dead at 50.

NM: Who do you admire now?

TM: There’s a woman I love, she’s really hostile, Flannery O’Connor, she’s really really good.

Anyway — I’m not posting Morrison quotes as “proof” that O’Connor must be forever established as top-tier English literature. I’m not qualified to make such a claim. And I’d love to attend a conference full of critical perspectives on O’Connor by African American scholars — that would be most enlightening.

But I am making the argument, supported by the new film, that O’Connor’s work isn’t beloved or admired just because white men say so — as one of my students seemed to believe. I’m with the global, multi-cultural community of readers who believe there is astonishing artistry in these stories that should continue to influence readers around the world for generations, and that they can serve as powerful medicine exposing — and even treating — a uniquely American strain of a disease that has run rampant through human history. And I am grateful for how they incline us toward repentance for our own sins and the sins of our ancestors, with inklings of some all-reconciling glory at work in the world.

What’s more — I believe the stories are enhanced by O’Connor’s own self-awareness of prejudice in her own heart. As a storyteller myself, I can only hope to aspire to that kind of humility, that kind of willingness to challenge and even illustrate my own failings. For the glory of God.

As O’Connor’s faithful and admiring student, I am grateful for the gift that this film will be in helping us appreciate both the strengths and weaknesses of a great artist, so we can carry the testimony of her life forward with wisdom, rather than reacting and canceling her for being as human as the rest of us.


Privacy Preference Center