Title: O Brother Where Art Thou?
Release Date: December 22, 2000
Director: Joel Coen
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Universal Pictures | StudioCanal | Working Title Films | Blind Bard Pictures
Said to be based on Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? has enough character names and plot points with mythological forebears to make you pull your hair trying to figure out the other parallels before you realize the Coen Brothers are pulling your leg. But this movie is deeply invested in the mythology of the South, from the sepia tones to the Spanish moss and the many cultural signifiers. Then there is the soundtrack! O Brother, Where Art Thou? is almost more famous for its music than the movie. It’s no myth that most great American musical styles originated in the South, and this movie is an anthology of some of the best.
George Clooney stars in one of his best roles as the loquacious and Clark Gable-like Ulysses Everett McGill, one of three prisoners who escape from a labor camp. John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson co-star has his companions Pete and Delmar. The film documents their journey home as the fall into an increasingly ridiculous situations including recording a hit folk song as The Soggy Bottom Boys and getting in the middle of a gubernatorial election between two corrupt fat cats. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is not the pure absurdism of The Big Lebowski but it gets pretty close.
The story is told through a white perspective of the South, and most of the Black characters are in the background, but O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t hide the racism and segregation of the South either. Our heroes are remarkably not racist for the 1930s, but they find themselves in the midst of the structural violence of criminal justice typically practiced against Black people. One of the most chilling scenes involve them stumbling upon a Klan rally with choreography that simultaneously echoes Triumph of the Will, The Wizard of Oz, and a Busby Berkley musical. The main Black character in the film is Blues guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King) who plays guitar on all the Soggy Bottom Boys’ songs, perhaps a nod to the African American origins of American popular music.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? is one of my favorite type of movies, one that makes me laugh and makes me think. Part absurdist comedy, part social satire, and part anthology of American folk music, O Brother, Where Art Thou? is worth revisiting.