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Reviewed by:
  • Bright Leaves
  • Barbara Hahn (bio)
Bright Leaves by Ross McElwee

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Figure 1.

Ross McElwee (here), a North Carolina native and maker of the acclaimed Sherman's March, produces films that are profound, slow-moving meditations on family and place, history and identity, personal and philosophical voyages alongside physical journeys through the region. Photograph courtesy of Ross McElwee and Bright Leaves (copyright 2003, distributed by First Run Features).

[End Page 60]

The last tobacco queen is having a rough morning. She's struggling to complete her thought that "everybody's gonna die of something, so . . . might as well die of something that's going to help out the . . . what's the word?" The filmmaker, the voice behind the camera, offers a suggestion: "Is it the economy?" They both understand the problem of dependence—physical, psychological, or financial—on a dangerous, disagreeable product. The beauty queen's hometown depends on the revenue tobacco brings, but its annual Tobacco Festival is soon to be renamed the "Farmers' Day Parade." This sort of quandary shapes Ross McElwee's powerful, problematic documentary, Bright Leaves. A North Carolina native and maker of the acclaimed Sherman's March, McElwee produces profound, slow-moving meditations on family and place, history and identity, personal and philosophical voyages alongside physical journeys through the region. This time around, he takes his audience through North Carolina's tobacco economy, and while his gaze meanders, he doesn't blink. He captures ambivalence, but the dual structure within which he confines it, the comparison he always draws, sacrifices the complexity of history in favor of family lore. The film ultimately frustrates as a home movie might—a revealing tidbit for outsiders that orders its own secret insights down well-worn, too-familiar paths.


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Figure 2.

McElwee begins and ends his story in a dream. His opening shot fills the screen with a hallucinatory close-up of the "immense, prehistoric-looking plants" that haunt his sleep. His wife thinks he dreams of tobacco because, he says, "no matter how long I lived in the cold, crowded North . . . the South was in my blood." Photograph courtesy of Ross McElwee and Bright Leaves.

McElwee begins and ends his story in a dream. His opening shot fills the screen with a hallucinatory close-up of the "immense, prehistoric-looking plants" that haunt his sleep. His wife thinks he dreams of tobacco because, he says, "no matter [End Page 61] how long I lived in the cold, crowded North . . . the South was in my blood." A phone call from a cousin he has never met begins his latest "transfusion" from his region, but quickly his quest expands to include interviews with aging Hollywood starlets of the studio era and consultations with crazy cinema theorists. For McElwee's cousin lures him into this voyage with the story of a movie, the 1950 Gary Cooper film Bright Leaf, which the cousins have come to believe was modeled on their great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, of Charlotte, North Carolina. The family patriarch made a fortune manufacturing tobacco after the Civil War, but lost it to the legendary Dukes of Durham, the men who mechanized the manufacture of cigarettes and dreamed up the advertising methods to sell them, turning tobacco into the robber-baron riches that endow major universities. The Dukes' infamous monopoly of the tobacco industry dominates the history of tobacco manufacturing, leaving men like McElwee broken by their power and forgotten in their shadow.


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Figure 3.

The juxtaposition of Duke University with the pathetic McElwee Park in Charlotte illustrates a poignant contrast between family legacies. On campus at Duke, courtesy of Duke University Photography.

In the movie, Gary Cooper plays a wildly successful, risk-taking entrepreneur destroyed by a powerful rival, and McElwee family lore has preserved a similar story. The family believes that McElwee originated a popular brand of tobacco—the Durham Bull—and that the Dukes destroyed him to obtain it. McElwee sued, and the Dukes fought his case by means fair and foul, according to family chronicles: dragging out legal battles, winning them with deep...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 60-65
Launched on MUSE
2006-05-10
Open Access
No
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