Film & TV

‘Flannery’ Faces the Life and Legacy of American Author

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This story was originally posted March 23. It was accidentally removed during a website update and has been restored.

The film, premiering on PBS tonight at 8 p.m., magnifies the renown and gloom encompassing the life of American author Flannery O’Connor.

After almost ten years, the Rev. Mark Bosco, SJ and Dr. Elizabeth Coffman are releasing their film “Flannery,” a documentary that chronicles the life of southern gothic writer Flannery O’Connor on the PBS program “American Masters.” 

This follows remarkable critical reception and screenings at film festivals across the country. “Flannery” was also the first recipient of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, for which the team was honored at a reception featuring filmmaker Ken Burns and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden.

The acclaimed documentary also has Loyola ties, as Fr. Bosco used to teach English and Theology at Loyola and Dr. Coffman is an associate professor within Loyola’s School of Communication. Initially released in October 2019, the film was a culmination of the research that began after the two attended a conference about O’Connor at Loyola.  

Their work was supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a federal program aiding research within the humanities.  

O’Connor’s life was one punctuated by darkness. The writer, a native of Savannah, Georgia, was a devout Catholic, which is a major influence in her writing. She moved to Iowa to attend university, where she wrote “The Geranium,” her first published short story. 

O’Connor’s first novel, “Wise Blood,” was published in 1952, but the author is known for many of her short stories, such as “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” 

Her work addressed issues of morality and faith, with characters often facing reflection or consequences for their own ethical failings. In 1964, O’Connor passed away from lupus, the same autoimmune disease her father died from when she was young. 

“She was used to people getting sick, dying, strokes,” Sally Fitzgerald, a friend of O’Connor, described early in the film. “She always had a strong sense of mortality.”

Throughout the documentary, O’Connor’s stories are interwoven with the realities of the writer’s own life. The stories selected for the film — including “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” and “Good Country People” — were the favorites of interview subjects, which included actor Tommy Lee Jones and novelist Alice Walker.  

The documentarians spoke on the difficulties facing their research, particularly in the limited recordings and photos of O’Connor because she was a private person. Their archival team worked to find footage of the writer and events throughout the South to be able to convey the injustices that informed much of O’Connor’s work. 

“Because O’Connor’s fiction speaks to these different problems of prejudice across class lines, race lines, religious lines, we really wanted to find archival work that would represent that history and supplement it,” Dr. Coffman said.

The film’s score, composed by Emmy-nominated Miriam Cutler, draws audiences in with its quick jumps from lighthearted and bright songs to ones that highlight the morose periods of O’Connor’s life. The combination of light strings and heavy piano cushion the colorful animation and footage throughout “Flannery.” 

“Musicians love Flannery O’Connor,” Dr. Coffman said. “Artists of all different kinds really respond to her work and her craft both in terms of music and as well as visualization.”

The film’s release date falls during Women’s History Month and meaningfully showcases the work of many women, from animators to composers, in a way that celebrates O’Connor’s reality and lasting legacy. Dr. Coffman and Fr. Bosco both hope the film encourages people to read more of O’Connor’s work.  

“She’s an amazing unique voice in American literature,” Fr. Bosco said. “Go back to her stories, to her classic stories, you can read them over and over again and get something new and insightful depending on each time you engage them.”

The film premieres Tuesday, March 23 at 8 p.m. on PBS’ “American Masters.” Local listing information can be found here.

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