Had she not died young, 39, in 1964 from complications of lupus, celebrated Southern writer Flannery O’Connor would have turned 95 in 2020. Co-writers/directors Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco’s affectionate but clear-eyed documentary “Flannery” (Long Distance Productions), first winner of the Library of Congress Lavine/Ken Burns Prize for Film, is a long overdue portrait of a talented writer and artist. Additionally, the timeliness of the release of the doc, much of which deals directly with mid-20th century racism, is particularly noteworthy.
Described by one critic as “perhaps the most naturally gifted of the youngest generation of American novelists,” O’Connor took the credo “write what you know” to heart, populating her fiction with characters who could have walked out of her Milledgeville, Georgia hometown, as well as her own family. As deeply Southern as she was devoutly Roman Catholic, O’Connor tasked herself with representing both in her work.
O’Connor started writing as an undergrad at Georgia State College for Women and even became editor of the school’s lit mag The Corinthian. In her mind, she believed she would make a living as a cartoonist (another of her talents) to support herself as a writer. Attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa, O’Connor got a lot of attention from the instructors which annoyed some of the male students, but she was finally around people who got her. After Iowa she was accepted at the artists’ colony Yaddo, but a negative situation arose while she was there. Fortunately, she met Robert and Sally Fitzgerald who came to her aid and set her on the right creative career path.
Sadly, just as she was achieving recognition as a published writer, she was diagnosed with lupus (the autoimmune disease that also killed her father). She moved back to Georgia where she lived on a farm with her mother Regina. Fortuitously, O’Connor was able to keep writing and publishing.
Certain to be of interest to LGBT viewers will be O’Connor’s friendships with two lesbians. Playwright and director Maryat Lee, as well as Betty Hester, a fellow Georgian who connected with the spiritual aspects of O’Connor’s writing. O’Connor and Hester developed a multi-year correspondence and in one exceptionally touching exchange, Hester comes out O’Connor who replies in the kindest and most generous way. Combined with gay interview subjects including Brad Gooch (author of 2009’s “Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor”), New Yorker Magazine staff writer Hilton Als (who has also written about O’Connor), and writer Richard Rodriguez, the doc contains unexpected queer perspectives.
One of the doc’s most wonderful touches is having Mary Steenburgen providing the voice of O’Connor reading passages of her work and making comments. Additionally, the way that Coffman and Bosco incorporate animation is a wise nod to O’Connor’s own expansive talents as a cartoonist. Other interview subjects include friends and relatives such as Louise Abbot, Sally Fitzgerald, Frances Florencourt, her longtime publisher Robert Giroux, writers Alice Walker, Mary Gordon, Alice McDermott, Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff and actors Tommy Lee Jones and Brad Dourif, to mention a few.