O Brother and the Coens
By Maryam Alshaiji
It is difficult to find a movie or work where the artist is not attempting to influence the audience. As a medium, it is based on the free exercise of expression, and the transfer of ideas. The Coen Brothers in their movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? apply their unique philosophy that stands in contrast to the directorial norm, and thus allows them a greater maneuverability to show their message. Using their ability to show and not tell, the brothers are able to craft a compelling view against classism and racism without muddying it in their attempt to capture it. By standing separately from their “message” they are able to allow the arguments against discrimination to show themselves without their input.
The year is 1929, and the world did seem like it was ending. The Great Depression left a wide scar on the American consciousness. For the first time in what felt like a while, people were constantly hungry, with no work available to them. Hugh Ruppersburg Professor at the University of North Carolina would recount in his work on Southern culture that his father would “never [hold] another job, though he was only in middle age. Apparently, the experience ruined his spirit.” (3) It is in this backbreaking era that the movie is set. A story of three white guys trying to make it big, acts as the border in which discrimination of people of color is highlighted.
Our focus is on three convicts: Ulysses Everett McGill, Pete Hogwallop, and Delmar O’Donnell. Ulysses is the perfect example of the common con man, good at tricks but to easily enamored by the good life. Pete on the other hand is a lanky southern type more likely to focus on his family’s future and success. Delmar might focus on the most unique of ideas, but that tends to lend itself to the adventurousness of the group. Together in their escape, they hope to get a glimpse of that wonderous dream everybody talks about, and are faced with the reality of their world.
As a movie that is concerned with showing and not telling, a lot is inferred from the scenes rather than outright stated. The movie seems to be telling the story of making it big, when in reality it is much more about change. In the first scene of the movie, The viewer is faced with a large group of people of color chained up working as part of their punishment. Throughout our “main” characters’ escape, it is in the background where the folks sing with spirit, and it is alongside their story that we see the advent of radio and mass communication. It is alongside the wide shots and the close-ups. Like America, it is two stories that are told concurrently. One for white society and one for everybody else. In the words of Ruppersburger once again, the movie “speaks in a particular way, as if some of its scenes linger on the verge of memory as if it is family history, or might have been, as if Ulysses Everett McGill is the paterfamilias of us all.” (3)
In their interest to staying true to the message and not inserting their own commentary into their work, the Coen Brothers’ found a unique way of demonstrating the power imbalance that people of color experience in society. It is through the ability of these folk to keep their stories alive that we know only a hint of their experience. In one particular scene, it is an old African American man that acts as a seer that is able to help our main characters. He tells them to stay on the road to their salvation. Eric Goldfischer from Macalester College states that “The representations of blackness contained in O Brother, Where Art Thou? focus on travel and music.” It is through this constant change or movement that we see the true power that the discriminated hold. He goes on further to state the works “reveals an intersection between black and white identity during the Depression, one that shows a continuing fascination with the Other while also playing with the social construct of race through interactions around music and train travel” Like in the scene in the radio station, it is this co-assistance that allows them to succeed. When they are able to work together, they both stand to benefit.
Seeking to highlight the many forms that discrimination takes, the Coen Brothers are sure to show that their white characters don’t escape the discrimination themselves. In his work “Bound to Ride that Northern Railroad: Representations of Blackness in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Eric Goldfischer states that “These white prisoners, whom the state has given up as useless and unproductive citizens, can interact closely with blackness as their place on the racialized totem pole has been reduced to near the bottom. “ (2) In this way we see how the Coen Brothers masterfully relate the issues of classism and racism. They are both looked down upon and it is under this pressure that their gifts are allowed to combine. In the movie, it allows their success as the Soggy Bottom Boys and thus their righteous freedom. The Coen brothers are able to show the veil that thinly hides our oblique ideas.
Michelle Cormier at Saint Paul University might have a more religious objective in their work and yet I find that we don’t disagree much on this interpretation. Michelle believes that “Because of the radio and the authentic folk musical traditions of the black and Appalachian communities, these songs of transformation have given the world American popular music. In both these movies, new life is realized through mass communication: the radio.” It is through this ability of mass communication and authenticity that the discriminated can control their own narrative. Through the telling of many coalescing stories, the human constants stay the same.
In its ability to stay separate from its message, O Brother Where Art Thou? is a masterclass in staying true to a message. By not seeking to comment, the Coen Brothers are able to sidestep the errors of previous works such as those of the blacksploitation period. The message against classism and racism in their movies would have been watered down and lessened in power if they had sought to insert a more concrete opinion of their own. It is not their story to tell and thus they focus on what can be shown rather than sold. I believe movies such as this one provide us the distance to be able to connect dots of our own.
Whenever stories of blackness spread throughout America, communities of oppressed peoples have had the choice of telling their own story torn from them in some attempt to tell their story. It was not their story, and the Coen Brothers realized this. Through this realization, they are able to support the discriminated being able to tell their own story without interference with them. They are able to allow the great machine of mass communication to do its job.
Cormier, Michelle (2002) “Black Song, White Song: Salvation Through The Radio in The Apostle and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 6: Iss. 2, Article 3. https://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/vol6/iss2/3
Goldfischer, Eric (2012) “Bound to Ride that Northern Railroad: Representations of Blackness in O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, Tapestries: Interwoven voices of local and global identities: Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 7. http://digitalcommons.macalester.edu/tapestries/vol2/iss1/7
Ruppersburg, Hugh. “‘Oh, so Many Startlements…”: History, Race, and Myth in O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Southern Cultures, The University of North Carolina Press, 13 Nov. 2003, muse.jhu.edu/article/48776.