Directors Robert Parrish and Bertrand Tavernier collaborated on this documentary about the American South, a subject Parrish knew by birth (he was born in Georgia) and Tavernier and his French crew only by legend. Although made with obvious affection, MISSISSIPPI BLUES is too unfocused
and meandering to have any impact.
The project's point of reference is William Faulkner (whose work, says narrator Parrish, is required reading in French schools), so they begin with a visit to the novelist's grave in Oxford, Mississippi. Aside from a few diversions, as when the two directors discuss what was the best film ever
made about the South (they agree on Jean Renoir's 1945 THE SOUTHERNER), most of the first hour is spent in black Baptist and Pentecostal churches. An ex-blues singer-turned-preacher talks about the (not so great) differences between his two callings. Others speak about the sociopolitical function
of black churches, which were in the forefront of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s but which have declined in importance as better-educated blacks have found more direct routes into politics. Much of this part of the film is spent watching church musicians and singers perform.
The second half of the film puts the crew on Highway 61, the much-mythologized path from south to north that goes from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago. They visit Dockery Farms, a plantation that is regarded as the home of delta blues. A bluesman offers his definition of the blues as "When a man
ain't got no money and a good gal leaves 'im." Musicians are filmed performing the blues, and a man tells how to cook possum.
None of the people who are interviewed in MISSISSIPPI BLUES are identified, either by name or function/job, which makes it difficult to know how much weight to put on their opinions. Near the end, when a man in a coach's sweatshirt speaks (in American-accented French) about the need to maintain a
balance between progress and traditional values, we're less interested in what it is he has to say than who he is and why we're listening to him. Perhaps the American South is so novel to the French audience for whom this was primarily intended that mere presentation was sufficient, but American
viewers are too familiar with this surface not to want a bit more depth.
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