Political Film Society - Newsletter #42 - June 1, 1999

June 1, 1999


On Saturday, June 5, the Political Film Society will hold a meeting at 7 p.m. to reword legal documents in response to a letter from IRS regarding the Society’s application to be a tax-exempt organization. The meeting, to be held at 8481 Allenwood Road, Los Angeles, is open to all.

In Cookie’s Fortune, director Robert Altman takes us to Holly Springs, Mississippi (a town halfway between Memphis and Tupelo) for a mystery caper. Although filmviewers and two of the actors know who is responsible for a death, the police do not, but the real mysteries are wrapped up in the Faulknerian characters, their foibles, and the symbolism of what we see and wish we could understand from Altman’s clues. Cookie (played by Patricia Neal) is the one who dies; she commits suicide. Her nieces Camille and Cora (played by Glenn Close and Julianne Moore) believe that they are the heirs, and Camille insists that they hush up the shame of suicide by faking a break-in, including breaking the glass of a cabinet where guns are kept. However, the door of the gun cabinet keeps opening on its own and cannot close. Other clues just do not make sense to the police, but Cookie’s honest and helpful black caretaker Willis Richland (played by Charles Dutton) of the house is arrested because he appears to have blood on his shirt because he was holding a bag with catfish. The white chief of police (played by Ned Beatty) does not believe that the black man is guilty; when asked why, he replies that they have gone fishing together. But the black man must stay in jail while the case is investigated, so he is joined by the chief of police for a game of scrabble and great-niece Emma (played by Liv Tyler) who offers to be Willis’s cellmate. Affirmative action has provided black and white police officers working harmoniously as if Holly Springs had none of the racial antagonisms experienced elsewhere in Mississippi. Indeed, a sign "In 1897 nothing happened here" seems to suggest that the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing segregation, Plessy versus Ferguson, was never implemented in Holly Springs with Jim Crow legislation.


In the end, the police exonerate Willis. We discover that Cookie, the nieces, and Willis have common grandparents; some turned out white, other black, and that Cookie has willed her estate to a black man whom the white nieces hope to placate so that they can move into Cookie’s house. A final mystery is not knowing whether they all ended up living together. The tagline of the film, "Welcome to Holly Springs . . . home of murder, mayhem and catfish enchiladas" is the most delightful spoof of all in a Mississippi that someday may grow beyond distinctions of race and class. MH

Life, directed by Ted Demme, presents a different Mississippi—where black men are imprisoned whether guilty or otherwise. Different except in one fascinating respect—Ned Beatty is again cast as an unprejudiced white prison superintendent. The film focuses on two inmates of a prison farm, played by Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence, New Yorkers in Mississippi to pick up moonshine during Prohibition, both of whom are framed for murder by a white sheriff trying to cover up the fact that he is the murderer, and they are sentenced to hard labor for life at a prison farm somewhere near Greenville. Nevertheless, they prove to be an "odd couple," bantering and bitching for some fifty years. While they miss events of the century that liberate blacks outside the prison farm, they find enjoyment by being themselves. The film shows a more contemplative Eddie Murphy, who is neither "Coming to America" nor "The Distinguished Gentleman" but instead has turned into a Bill Cosby or a Spike Lee, telling us that there is something more important than accommodating or fighting racial injustice, for the film’s tagline is "Share it with someone you love." MH

Thanks to Stefanie L. Martin of the University of Washington, the Political Film Society now offers a new publication, entitled Fiction and Independent Films: Creating Viable Communities and Coalitions by Reappropriating History. Click here to see the Society's other publications.

EXPOSÉ: Three Seasons