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Virginia Vitzthum’s assertion that “[t]he Coens’ mythology is movies” (Road Movies,” 1/5) omits one of the most important motifs in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Southern folklore as mythology is a recurring theme in their new film.
The film is set in Mississippi of the ’30s, but only in a mythological sense. Charles Durning portrays Gov. Pappy O’Daniel, who was actually elected governor of Texas in 1938. O’Daniel’s voice was heard not just in Texas, but throughout the South, because he broadcast over high-frequency Mexican radio. The Coens have Gov. O’Daniel singing “You Are My Sunshine,” written by another Southern governor, Louisiana Gov. Jimmy Davis. Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and ancient Greece morph into a Grecian Delta. Roger Deakins’ cinematography adds to the sense of Southern mythology, because it conveys Walker Evans’ powerful photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
Vitzthum may believe that “the film drags out every Southern-cracker stereotype,” but O Brother, Where Art Thou? has been embraced by the Oxford American. If a periodical based in Oxford, Miss., can publish countless articles praising the film without crying about cracker stereotypes, you’d think that the Yankee Washington City Paper might be able to lighten up.
I would agree that in the film “everyone else is racist, ignorant, and corrupt,” but you’d think “racist, ignorant, and corrupt” are one and the same. It is a comedy, so one can expect some sort of exaggerated caricature. Mississippi in ’30s is the perfect racist foil, because racism was so entrenched. Sen. Bilbo wasn’t elected in ’30s Mississippi because he was smart and honest; Mississippians knew that Bilbo would protect the dreaded system of Jim Crow.
As for the “Ku Klux Klan lynching party choreographed like a Busby Berkeley production number,” to me it looked like a bush-league Nuremberg rally. The Coens are having fun at the expense of the Klan, but they wisely parallel the Ku Klux Klan with rise of the Nazi party in Hitler’s Germany of the ’30s.