Born March 25, 1925, in Savannah, Georgia, Mary Flannery O’Connor made her public debut at the age of 5, when a Pathé cameraman from New York came to photograph her chicken. The chicken walked backward. If it didn’t, you could almost imagine O’Connor coming up with that peculiarity for one of her stories.
Whether in drawings or in prose, O’Connor brought Southern Gothic and all its contradictions to the world. Her debut novel, Wise Blood, published in 1952, is probably her most well-known work, a mixture of misfits, outcasts, displaced persons, and Catholicism. It was adapted for the screen by Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald and directed by John Huston in 1979. But the movie is all O’Connor. Not an easy feat, considering she’d been dead for a decade when the movie came out. Complications from lupus was the cause. O’Connor was 39.
Flannery, the new documentary from Elizabeth Coffman and Mark Bosco, recounts all of this: The moonwalking chicken, O’Connor’s literature, and Huston’s movie. Coffman and Bosco also explain how O’Connor’s mother tried to correct her—her shoes, her teeth, her education. Funny enough, dad liked her just the way she was. Too bad for O’Connor; dad died when she was 15.
Coffman and Bosco rely on talking-head interviews to explain the genius and troubles of O’Connor. They pepper these interviews with archival footage. And when there is none to draw on, animation fills the gaps.
It all works, but Flannery fails to do anything beyond scratching the surface. The documentary is a primer at best. It might encourage viewers to seek out O’Connor’s writing; then again, they may walk away from the doc with the false impression of understanding and stop there. That would be a shame.
Flannery airs on PBS’ series, American Masters, March 23, 8 p.m. ET. Header photo by Joe McTyre.