Durham, NC is a tobacco town. Bull Durham was a brand of tobacco long before it was the minor league baseball home of Javy Lopez, Joe Morgan, Andruw Jones, and so many other stars. There really was a "Crash" Davis — though I daresay that the fictional Crash played by Kevin Costner probably hit for more power. Everywhere you look in Durham, you see the evidence of the tobacco industry - huge, sprawling warehouses, fading advertisements on falling buildings, and the Gothic spires of Duke University built with the tobacco fortunes of the Duke family. Even the renewal that graces our city bears the mark (or stain) of tobacco - Brightleaf Square, the American Tobacco Amphitheatre (a beautiful downtown shopping/dining venue on the property of the largest Duke family warehouse), the American Tobacco Mueseum, the Tobacco trail that winds through Durham county, and the spacious downtown flats in formerly vacant tobacco industry buildings.
"Bright Leaves" is a remarkable documentary that seeks to come to grips with our local history. Filmmaker Ross McElwee has created an autobiographical narrative that searches for his own legacy in tobacco-stained history and economy of North Carolina. McElwee's great grandfather actually developed the "Bull Durham" brand, accumulating great wealth from the product only to see this brand wrested from him in a series of court struggles by the infamously ruthless Duke family. McElwee presents this legend and his own ambiguous feelings about his heritage with a series of humorous images. The Duke mansion is contrasted with the asphault parking lot that now stands on the site of his great grandfather's former stately home. Images of the beautiful parks and Duke Forest that are the philanthropic gifts of the Dukes to our community are compared to McElwee Park in Salisbury, NC — a couple of benches in front of deteriorating building! As he films the vast imprints of the Duke fortune, McElwee wonders aloud, with a tongue-in-cheek wistfulness, saying "All this could have been mine!"
The film also includes clever and arbitrary insertions of his family life in Boston, haunting scenes chronicling the horrific consequences of tobacco addiction, and scenes from the 1934 Gary Cooper film "Bright Leaves" which is inspired by the epic McElwee-Duke struggle. As the historical portrait widens, a distinct irony emerges. The Duke family funds the development of Duke Medical School and the world class Duke Medical Center. The next generations of the McElwee family become doctors and surgeons with an occasional filmmaker thrown in. McElwee jokes that both these families mastered the essence of capitalism, creating the "perfect" product - a product that creates an incessant demand and also creates corrollary needs such as medical treatment. Talk about working both sides of the fence.
For Christians, the film offers several disturbing, challenging, and honest portraits. We see the awe-inspiring Duke Chapel built with tobacco money. From all over Durham, one can sees its heavenly oriented spires. Yet it was also built as a mausoleum of the Washington Duke and James B. Duke. Other images include tobacco farmers whose fields surround their places of worship. One devout farmer expresses both his and his pastor's discomfort with the subject. For Southerners, particularly North Carolinians, we have long struggled with the collision of the addictions of a tobacco economy and the potential liberations of Jesus' gospel. McElwee editing of church services, gospel music backgrounds, and scenes of addiction or disease related to cancer probes this comfort and challenges our historical silence. My rural Baptist upbringing often came to mind as I watched. I have vivid memories of strong moral judgments on dancing, alcohol, divorce, and contemporary music made by cigarette smoking Deacons.
But the film's theme transcended even the moral dilemma of tobacco. McElwee expresses a deep love for North Carolina and its beauties. Our mountains, beaches, and rolling hills fill the scenes of his narrative. The hospitality and warmth of our citizens are constantly evident. This film is about the search for a legacy and the painful work required to come to grips with the moral complexities of one's personal story. Our search for legacies always transcend simple portraits of good and evil. McElwee eventually realizes that the character played by the heroic Gary Cooper in Hollywood's version of "Bright Leaves" combines the traits of his great-grandfather AND James B. Duke. His exploration of family narrative does not sustain neither a villification of the Dukes nor a wistful martyrdom of his own family.
I was constantly reminded of a great Biblical narrative as I enjoyed this documentary. The Old Testament story of Jacob also explores these same themes of a stolen birthright, deceptive and unjust economic gain, and the difficult challenge of coming home in the midst of such legacies. Jacob's journeys in the Bible includes both a great flight from home and a bold, brash return. In the second half of Jacob's story, he courageously faces his legacy and travels back to Bethel, a sacred place where he encountered God but sadly did not know it. Our own confrontations with our pasts often takes this form — deception, flight, penitent insight, renewal, and courageous re-engagement with not only our own stories but God's redemptive presence in even the worst of our stories.
In "Bright Leaves," McElwee returns home and finds his own legacy. He is honest with the residuals of his family's association with tobacco and their redemptive responses to this stain. In the midst of his clever contrasts with the fates of the McElwee's and the Duke's, he explores meanings that go far beyond wealth, power, disease, and death.