Ah, sleepy, magnolia-scented Dixie. You know, old times there are not forgotten.
And maybe that’s the problem.
Patrick O’Connor’s documentary Look Away, Look Away takes a cold, clear-eyed look at the Deep South, race relations and cultural warfare. And keeps its focus by narrowing it down to one issue, the Confederate flag, and one place: Mississippi.
There, for more than a century, the rebellious stars-and-bars have been part of the state flag, too. But symbolizing what? An acknowledgement of history or a celebration of racism? A nod to a proud culture or a support of white supremacy?
O’Connor has spent years documenting the fight over the flag. Perhaps because he’s a transplanted Yankee (and the husband of a native Mississippian) he tries to approach the subject calmly and without judgement.
Turning on the camera, introducing himself politely, he simply, calmly asks people on both sides of the issue why they feel the way they do.
You may find it hard to stay calm hearing some of the answers, though, at least from the people who seem to be not only pro-Confederate flag, but pro-Confederacy.
One nicely dressed man insists that slavery wasn’t all bad. A Klan member declares that he’s “proud” to be a bigot. Other people sport Nazi insignias, brandish toilet paper imprinted with Obama’s face, or display weapons they seem eager to use.
O’Connor does find a few calm voices in the din. One man points out that plenty of racist acts have happened under the blessing of the Stars and Stripes. Another talks sincerely about his respect for Confederate soldiers who fought and died bravely.
O’Connor also finds a few anti-flag activists who almost feel like caricatures of the “outside agitator” – angry people looking for a fight, or just a chance to curse and break stuff.
But no matter how objective the film tries to be, one thing comes through. The flag represents only a part of the South’s culture, and a selective reading of its history. It is a hurtful, hateful symbol to many people. And those people are Black and white, Republican and Democrat.
Despite all the loud voices, Look Away, Look Away is a thoughtful, low-key documentary. O’Connor does his own narration, and the people interviewed are all local activists. There aren’t any celebrities giving soundbites, or talking heads imparting wisdom. Its intention is clearly to dial down the temperature, just a bit, on a fiery issue. Aloud, O’Connor wonders why compromise seems so impossible.
But is that something that’s really possible on this issue? Or even desirable? After it lost the war, Germany didn’t put up statues honoring Goering, or raise swastikas in public parks. Why should we honor Americans who fought America? And emancipation?
Look Away, Look Away tries, admirably, to be fair. But sometimes what it’s looking away from are a few ugly facts.