Review of ‘Uncommon Grace’
The first film about the life of Flannery O’Connor screens in Georgia and beyond.
By Nevada McPherson
“Uncommon Grace,” the first documentary about the life of Flannery O’Connor, begins with O’Connor’s idyllic childhood in Savannah, Georgia. Director Bridget Kurt conveys key aspects of the author’s formative years through photographs and interviews with current O’Connor scholars, along with clear and compelling voiceover narration, presenting historical and biographical information in an accessible and straightforward manner.
Readers of O’Connor may be aware of the author’s complicated relationship with her mother, Regina, but not as much is known about Flannery’s close, loving relationship with her father Edward, who, like Flannery, also succumbed to lupus at a young age. The narrative most effectively traces O’Connor’s early years from the more cosmopolitan environs of Savannah, a sophisticated Southern port city with a thriving Catholic community, to Atlanta in the 1940s, to Milledgeville. With each move, it’s apparent Flannery became more of an outsider. An imaginative and precocious child who preferred the company of adults to that of other children, the more Flannery was forced to leave her comfort zone, the more she was forced to delve into her imagination.
While “Uncommon Grace” features material with which many O’Connor fans would be familiar, I was surprised and delighted to discover new things about Flannery O’Connor and her work. It’s well known that O’Connor attended University of Iowa to study at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop, but less well known is the fact that when she set out for the Midwest, she had a different course of study in mind. Her interest in studying journalism in preparation for becoming an editorial cartoonist gave way to a desire to learn fiction writing. The rest, as they say, is history. The section of the film dealing with O’Connor’s time at the workshop is quite fascinating and provides a great deal of insight into her ambition and determination to master the craft of fiction.
That wasn’t the first time O’Connor’s path would veer from the one she’d originally expected to follow — and it wouldn’t be the last. Her brush with the first symptoms of lupus brought her back to Milledgeville, but try as she might to continue in what she anticipated could be a successful career as a professional writer living in New York City, that dream just wasn’t to be. It wasn’t that her dream of becoming a successful writer wouldn’t come true, of course, but the shape that her career would take changed radically, and that change guided her toward the stories and characters that still touch so many lives today.
“Uncommon Grace” sheds much light on the role that faith would play in O’Connor’s life and work. The physical challenges O’Connor experienced on a daily basis forged the framework of her fiction, through the unbreakable framework of her strong devotion to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The film traces this process, again through insightful comments of foremost O’Connor scholars, as well as glimpses from O’Connor’s own prayer journal.
Part of Kurt’s (pictured) stated purpose in making this film was to provide high school and college instructors with a resource for teaching the stories of Flannery O’Connor, which many find particularly challenging. The film addresses difficult aspects of her stories, such as the role of religion and the purpose of violence most effectively in a way that will enlighten young minds and enliven classroom discussion. Also addressed in the film is the issue of O’Connor’s attitude toward race, which has often been a subject of debate. As the Civil Rights Movement came to the fore in American culture near the end of her life, O’Connor chose to comment on the changes she saw occurring around her mostly through her fiction, notably in “Everything that Rises Must Converge.”
“Uncommon Grace” is a satisfying cinematic experience and a welcome addition to the libraries of scholars and devoted readers of Flannery O’Connor, as well as those brand-new to her writing. The documentary not only traces the broad contours of O’Connor’s life and work but goes deeper to illuminate the passion and purpose behind the stories and characters that have made their way from O’Connor’s typewriter at Andalusia Farm to resonate with readers all over the world.
Tuesday, May 17, 6:30 p.m. at the Switzer Library in Marietta, Georgia
Saturday, June 4, 8 p.m. at the Acworth Cultural Arts Center Main Street Gallery in Acworth, Georgia
A future screening will be held in Knoxville, Tennessee, as part of a citywide library event beginning in January 2017. Flannery O’Connor has been chosen as the featured author for the year because of this film.
Nevada McPherson lives with her husband, Bill, and rescue Chihuahua, Mitzi, in Milledgeville, Georgia, where she is a professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College. She received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. She’s written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, plays, short stories and two graphic novels, Uptowners and Piano Lessons. She’s currently at work on her third graphic novel, Queensgate.