Revisiting O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I think we can all agree that there’s something uniquely, well, peculiar about the Coen brothers’ movies. And yet, Joel and Ethan Coen are considered two of the greatest writers and directors of American cinema -- and for good reason. Their films combine quirky and lovable characters, laugh-out-loud humor, and an intriguing aesthetic. O Brother, Where Art Thou? presents all of these and more. Still, our modern understanding of race and representation require us to examine it with a critical lens.
Inspired by Homer’s The Odyssey and set during the Great Depression, the film tells the story of a trio of runaway prisoners--Everett, Delmar, and Pete--who want to find a treasure deep in Mississippi while steering clear of the police. On their quest, they perform for a radio broadcaster who gives them some fast cash. Little do they know, their song becomes a big hit. When they arrive in a small town in Mississippi, they use the fame they had no clue they possessed to help oust a racist candidate for mayor.
Part of the fun of watching O Brother, Where Art Thou? now is that it features a young George Clooney in the main role of Everett. (Multiple friends of mine walked in while I was watching and said, “Wait… is that George Clooney???”) His dry delivery makes every line all the more hilarious. Plus, it’s exciting to see the early career milestones of such an iconic actor. Nevertheless, Clooney is far from the only star in this film. John Turturro’s stone-faced performance in the role of Pete and Tim Blake Nelson’s portrayal of a clueless Delmar induce just as many laughs.
Another notable element of O Brother, Where Art Thou? is its musical focus. The three men find unexpected fame through their makeshift band, the Soggy Bottom Boys, and their hit song, “Man of Constant Sorrow”. But the music doesn’t end there - the film features multiple musical numbers embedded into the plot, as well catchy background music, all with a bluegrass and country feel. The soundtrack stands so strongly on its own that in 2002, it won the Grammy for Album of the Year.
Finally, O Brother, Where Art Thou? was a technical marvel for its time. It made headlines as the first feature film to be digitally color corrected. This allowed the Coen brothers to achieve their desired dusty, old-looking feel. It also made the world of the film look more realistic.
But as much as the film boasts great acting, great music, top-notch humor, and technical achievement, its content requires closer examination. Given its setting in the Great Depression, as well as its release in 2000, its condemning of racism is quite progressive. With that said, certain elements of the film would certainly clash with our current understanding of racism and discrimination. For starters, the film includes an “accidental” blackfacing when Everett, Delmar, and Pete get dirty, and then when they save their friend Tommy from being burned on the cross by the KKK, they are mistaken for being Black themselves.
But more overarchingly problematic is the film’s simplistic depiction of racism in the South. On the evening of the film’s release, Joel Coen said the following in an interview with The Irish Times: “The politics are frankly pretty primitive. The bad guys are racial bigots and KKK Grand Dragons, and the good guys are the heroes of the movie.” Indeed, the film presents a straightforward depiction of race relations with little room for nuance. When the progressive candidate for mayor is revealed to be a KKK leader, he is carried out of the town hall on the very cross he was going to use to burn Tommy. The enemy has met his downfall, right?
Wrong. It is exactly this that O Brother, Where Art Thou? neglects to address. Just because a candidate for mayor has been taken down, doesn’t mean the institutions in his town will suddenly no longer be racist. It doesn’t mean equity and equality will be addressed. It also doesn’t mean the Soggy Bottom Boys are automatically heroes. Even in ousting the candidate for mayor, the trio was simply lucky to be in the right place at the right time.
Thus, I leave O Brother, Where Art Thou? with mixed feelings. It has every element of an excellent film, and in many ways, it made statements about race that were not being made at the time of its release. For those reasons, it should be celebrated. Yet my ever-growing understanding of race and racism in 2021 forces me to recognize the ways in which it fell short. Films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? remind me of the continuing importance of accurate representation in film, and how we cannot shy away from authentically discussing racism, discrimination, and other important social issues.