Ross McElwee directs this autobiographical documentary about his family’s roots in the tobacco business in North Carolina. Taking a sabbatical from his home in Boston, he offers a culturally interesting history of the South as viewed through the biggest, wealthiest tobacco enterprises. Meanwhile, he examines a Hollywood movie that was based on the same topic, BRIGHT LEAF, the 1950 film set in 1894’s tobacco-ruled South, which stars Gary Cooper and Lauren Bacall and was directed by Michael Curtiz (CASABLANCA). Though McElwee doesn’t have firm proof, he speculates that the film is actually based on his great grandfather’s rise and fall in the tobacco industry, and he splices in segments of that film to illustrate some of his historical points. It goes without saying that BRIGHT LEAVES’ dominant purpose, and strongest message, is anti-smoking, and in its grimmer moments the film shows hospitalized victims of smoking-related illnesses, and conducts interviews with those who have lost dear ones to lung cancer. Packaged as an exploratory and educational dabble into McElwee’s past, this documentary is enjoyable and enlightening.
What I found mesmerizing is how personal Bright Leaves is. It is as much a documentary about tobacco as it is about his family, from his great grand father and forward to his son, and how it is tied to tobacco.
That aside, it was an interesting thought that the great grandfather left the family little money, but rather, a “trust fund” of a cancer-ridden culture for his grandfather, father, and brother (all doctors who treat cancer patients).