Movie of the Month: Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Boomer, Brandon, and CC watch Belizaire the Cajun (1986).

Britnee: My family has been living along Bayou Lafourche since the Acadian Expulsion (1755-1763), which was a time during the Seven Years’ War when the British forced the Acadians out of what is now modern day New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Isle. They were put on nasty old ships and landed in Southern Louisiana. Some of my relatives were even born on those migrant ships! Of course, there’s so much to Acadian Expulsion that I’m not mentioning here, but I don’t want this to turn into a history paper. As the Acadian’s settled in Southern Louisiana, they became known as the Cajuns. Cajun life was and still is so much different than any other culture in the United States. Unfortunately, there aren’t many films that offer a glimpse into what it’s like to be Cajun. The only film that I believe does an exceptional job of grasping the essence of Cajun life is 1986’s Belizaire the Cajun. The film’s director, Glen Pitre, is from Down the Bayou (Cut Off to be exact), and his ancestral background is similar to mine. He has a true understanding of the Cajun way of life, and it shines through every second of Belizaire.

I’m so glad that I got to share this film with the Swampflix crew because it’s such an important film for folks from Down the Bayou. I used to rent it from my local library when I was a kid, and all my family talked about it like it was the best movie on Earth. Watching it recently made me realize that Cajuns have really never changed. We are still in tune with nature, and nothing in the world means more to us than our family, friends, and faith. Also, I hate wearing shoes more than anything, so it was nice to see the majority of the cast shoe-less and walking around without a care in the world.

The main character, Belizaire (Armand Assante), is such a likeable guy. He’s a goofball with a big heart, and you can’t help but root for him. Brandon, what are your thoughts on Belizaire? Would you want him to be in your inner circle or would you stay as far away from him as possible?

Brandon: The most immediately pleasing aspect of this movie for me was the tagline that accompanied its 25th Anniversary re-release. The posters and trailers for that 2011 reissue all boast that Belizaire the Cajun is “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!,” which is an amusing claim, but a bold one. I couldn’t shake this question from my head while watching the film, thanks to that marketing, and now I’m hung up on it all over again thanks to Britnee’s prompt: Is Belizaire cool? Sure, he’s likeable and we want him to succeed as the titular hero of the picture, but is he cool? Thankfully, the answer is yes . . . mostly.

The only obstacles that hold Belizaire back from being 100% cool are a result of the film’s rural 19th Century setting. We’re introduced to him in the opening scene at his nerdiest: negotiating with a priest about how many prayers he’s assigned to say as penance for the day’s confession of sins, bargaining to lower the number to loosen up some free time. This may be the lapsed Catholic in me talking, but I would not personally rate Christian Humor anywhere near the leather jackets & switchblades end of the cool scale, even if religious faith comes standard with his community & era. What’s even less cool is Belizaire’s persistence in pursuing his love interest: a married woman who has shot him down hundreds of times without him ever taking the hint. I don’t want to hold this fictional 19th Century courtship up to a 2010s standard, but there’s something severely uncool about Belizaire continually stirring up shit in an already volatile marriage out of boredom & lust, especially since the woman who repeatedly rejects him expresses fear that her husband will physically retaliate against the both of them whether or not their flirtations are consummated.

Pretty much everything else about Belizaire is cool as fuck, though. He’s a bearded apothecary herbalist who looks like he stepped off the front cover of a paperback romance novel. He plays accordion in the most popular band at the local fais do-do. He’s extemely loyal to his community, to the point where he’ll stand trial for crimes he did not commit just to buy his innocently accused friends some time to escape. His active resistance against the invading, wealthy Anglophones who aim to evict his people from Louisiana mostly involves good-natured pranks & Old Hollywood swashbuckling – to the point where he’s swinging Tarzan-style from his own execution noose to save innocent lives from danger. I’m not sure the movie that contains him is something I’d call “cool” on its own merits; its production style largely feels reminiscent of cheap TV costume dramas like Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. However, anyone in any era would feel safer & cooler having a Belizaire in their inner circle.

If we accept that Belizaire is cool, then the only remaining question raised by that tagline is whether or not the world knows about him. Belizaire the Cajun cannot be “The movie that taught the world that it’s cool to be Cajun!” if it never truly reached the outside world. Britnee has indicated that the film has a special place in the heart of folks Down the Bayou, but I have less of a sense of whether it truly resonated elsewhere. I know it experienced some financial backing & signal boosting from celebrities (Robert Redford & Robert Duvall) and film festivals (Sundance & Cannes), but that’s about all I know. CC, do you get the sense that Belizaire the Cajun reached enough people to “teach the world” anything? Is this film’s legacy more detectable as a global educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture or as a rare glimpse of local representation on the big screen?

CC: I did some very informal polling and very light research so I can say with absolute[ly no] authority that while Belizaire the Cajun certainly had an impact on the Cajun French community that still lived “down the bayou” and participated in the filmmaking process, I don’t think it had a lasting cultural impact outside of Louisiana. It’s still fondly remembered by the folks of Cote Blanche and, based on Britnee’s love for the film, is still being passed down to the next generation of proud Cajuns. However, other than a few passing remarks in (mostly local) publications citing it as part of the Cajun cultural wave that “swamped” America in the 1980s (along with Zydeco music and the food of Paul Prudhomme), it seems to have mostly faded from the public consciousness after 1990. Even in contemporary reviews that were not particularly kind to Belizaire, the traditional Zydeco and Cajun music of Michael Doucet was always given a positive nod. In fact, the only awards attention this film received in the United States was a nomination for the 1987 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Cajun food and music were essential to the sudden national interest in the regions culture in the 1980s. Belizaire the Cajun seemed to be an attempt to add filmmaking to that gumbo, but the Cajun Cinema concept never really took off the way it did in other art forms.

Even if the rest of the world didn’t “get” Belizaire, at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter. Glen Pitre began his career making documentaries and “Gumbo Westerns” in Cajun French, filmed on location, with local volunteers as his cast and crew. It was For Us By Us situation. Belizaire was an ambitious and risky attempt to transcend his niche as a foreign-language filmmaker working in America. Even with the guidance and mentorship of the Sundance Institute, Pitre didn’t “go Hollywood;” he continued to rely on his community to help him create a film that would both celebrate their culture as it was and introduce it to the rest of the country. Belizaire definitely falls into the category of celebration of cultural representation more so than educational tool.

One of the national newspaper reviews I read in preparation for my response was confused about a major conflict between the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns. To them it seemed very abrupt, like the Anglo-Americans and the Cajuns had lived side by side and all of a sudden the Americans turned on the Cajuns. Why exactly did the Anglo-Americans seemed so intent on taking the Cajun land? Did they hate them for being Catholic? Were they greedy for land? Were they just plain evil? The answer seemed pretty straightforward to me as someone who’s lived here and knows the history, so I suspect outside reviewers were only confused because they lacked proper context. Boomer, was the motivation for the conflict confusing to you, as a fellow local? Did the movie do a good enough job explaining the larger clash between the Cajuns and the Anglo-Americans before getting into the specifics of Belizaire’s own personal conflicts?

Boomer: Although I grew up in Louisiana and took the Louisiana History class that I assume everybody did when they were in eighth grade, that course’s coverage of Cajun history was pretty underdeveloped. Even with regards to this film that taught “the world,” when I called my local video store, it was still only available on VHS, from Key Video of all companies, essentially locking it away in a format that only we diehards could access, like some kind of arcane knowledge. I don’t really think that any more information than what’s provided is needed to understand the film, since anyone living in 2019 who paid attention to any history class at any point in their lives with a textbook that wasn’t written by Rupert Murdoch knows that the narrative of Western history is invade, kill, and overtake, endlessly, as far as our species has maintained records. That contemporary reviews seemed to need more context than this really only highlights how recently any awareness of historical atrocities has penetrated the mainstream. That being said, it’s not terribly surprising that they may have been confused, as I was, by the focus on anti-Cajun vigilantism in a vacuum. Halfway through the film, when we see Matt’s family’s plantation–and black people onscreen–for the first time, I asked myself what year this was again (1854) and immediately thought “Those are slaves.” It may be that the film critics who came before us thought it was unusual that this went completely unremarked upon when the film’s sympathies lie so firmly with the displaced Cajuns that there’s none to spare for anyone else suffering under Anglos.

I found myself charmed by this one in a way I wasn’t expecting. I loved that Belizaire was essentially a larger-than-life mythical figure who wanders around the swampside doling out folk wisdom and folk medicine at the same time, pulling a reverse Moses (“Let my people stay”) with the local government on behalf of his fellows in diaspora, performing a Samsonian labor by using his ball and chain to break out of jail, and his Messianic archetypicality is solidified when he spends the film’s finale being (not quite) executed between two real criminals, one of whom even accepts his shenanigans. All that’s missing is the cry of “Give us Barabbas!” Britnee, do you see these themes as well, or am I only in a Biblical mood because, as of the time of this writing, it’s Easter weekend?

Britnee: I think you’re on to something with this Biblical connection. Belizaire is a traiteur, which is essentially a faith healer. Traiteurs use their gifts from God to perform miracles and can cure just about anything with prayer and a little help from Mother Nature. My granny actually used to bring my dad and his siblings to one when they were kids! Belizaire is basically Swamp Jesus. Other than performing “miracles,” some of his other Christ-like qualities include his willingness to sacrifice his life to bring peace to his community and his attempts to use reasoning to avoid violence (for the most part). Also, he has the look of Jesus down to a T with his long brown locks, facial hair, loose fitting clothes, and dirty bare feet. It’s obvious that Pitre had Jesus in mind when creating Belizaire’s character.

Something that I wanted to touch on with Belizaire is the murder mystery that’s thrown in the latter half of the film. I think it’s incorporated well and doesn’t disturb the film’s flow, but it’s still pretty surprising as the beginning of the film is more of a historical drama/love story. Brandon, what are your thoughts on the whodunit within Belizaire? Did you like how the film was a mix of genres or was it too much for one movie?

Brandon: Based on the opening text scrawl that quickly explains the historical context for Cajuns (once again) being evicted from their lands and the film’s first-act depictions of that very conflict, I did not at all expect this to turn into a murder mystery. I suppose the more expected route would be for Belizaire and his romantic rival to gradually come to an understanding that unites the two opposed communities and saves the Cajuns from being pushed into Texas, tidily resolving the conflict forever. That more traditional plot would have ensured that this film would be a VHS-era classroom standard throughout Louisiana, an educational tool on the broader points of Cajun culture that doesn’t vilify Anglos in the process. Instead, we suffer through a shockingly violent whipping, a subsequent murder seemingly committed in retaliation, and a death-row criminal trial where the accused repeatedly escapes imprisonment to prove his innocence and expose the true killer. I don’t know that the murder-mystery plot was my favorite aspect of Belizaire the Cajun, mostly because it’s clear who the killer is long before their identity is revealed. I do love that the film was able to surprise me with that genre shift, though, since I felt like I already could see the pattern it was going to follow ten minutes into its story only to be proven very, very wrong. It also helped the picture feel like a legitimate Hollywood production on a scale far above its locally-funded indie cinema budget, especially in moments where Belizaire is allowed to attempt some swashbuckling stunts (punching his rivals, jumping off of buildings, swinging Tarzan-style from his own noose, etc.). It’s the aspect of the film that most makes it feel like a major motion picture instead of a classroom teaching tool and, thus, it’s the one that most subverted my expectations.

As strange as the introduction of a murder mystery halfway into the film feels from a narrative structure standpoint, the resolution to that mystery is almost even more unexpected. Belizaire reveals the true killer to his community and their oppressors from the vantage point of his own execution platform the very minute he’s meant to be hanged. It’s a lengthy, dialogue-heavy climax that plays directly into Cajun superstitions about gris-gris in a fascinating way, while also working hard to tidy up every disparate subplot in a single maneuver. CC, was the execution sequence a satisfying conclusion to this story for you? What did you think of the tactic of allowing Belizaire to hold court for a lengthy period of time as a climax to this picture?

CC: That third act, woof. I think that climactic scene took way, way, waaaaay too long to play out. Belizaire insists on executing his entire last will and testament at his actual execution. The scene grows comically and exasperatingly long as he hands out each and every bottle of medicine, bundle of herbs, and pinch of dirt he can conjure up before building to his big finale. Then, at his own hanging, in front of each and every gathered individual of the community, after giving each person a gift, after they begin to chant that they love him and don’t want him to go, he starts to build the case that perhaps he was not the murderer after all. His method for circumventing his own death is a rather neat trick, but one that should have been achieved in half the time.

Boomer, the only major facet of the film we haven’t discussed so far is the music, even though that seems to be its most enduring legacy outside Louisiana. Does that longevity surprise you? Did the music stand out to you as exceptional?

Boomer: I watched this with my best friend, and every few minutes, I would turn to her and say something along the lines of “I’m surprisingly charmed by this, Kat.” As has been mentioned, although I had never seen this movie and don’t remember ever even hearing about it, the title Belizaire the Cajun immediately transported me to elementary school movie days based on its name alone. Kat and I got into a discussion and, although I have always thought that I just don’t like period pieces, we came to an agreement that period pieces were fine-to-great, as long as they weren’t cheaply made (this is the difference between something like Barry Lyndon or The Favourite and every lousy western you’ve ever sat through). I watched this on an original domestic 1987 Key Video VHS release (my dear beloved Vestron handled the international release, operating out of West Germany) rented from the wonderful people at Vulcan Video, and the grain of the video combined with the lack of any immediately recognizable actors put me in the mindset of a rainy day recess, and I was pretty resistant to what seemed like a bargain basement period drama at first, until I gave myself over to it and was carried away. All of this is to say that, to be honest, the music didn’t leave much of an impression on me, unfortunately. I was more captivated by the bizarre nature of the story and the twists. I remember zydeco music, to be sure, especially during the scene at the dance, but even then I was more invested in some of the minor but impressive aspects that made sense (like the fact that the dance starts during daylight, which it would have to, as pre-electricity night travel was dangerous even before the Anglos started their little vigilante bands) and the fun little moments from the minor characters (“I’ve only got two rules: the drunks stay outside, and the drinks stay outside”). The only other times that I noticed the music were when it felt out of place; the jaunty jig that plays during one of Belizaire’s escapes really breaks the mood. There were moments when the sound editing really struck me, like the ambient animal noises of the bayou and bayou-adjacent in many of the night scenes, but the music just didn’t stand out to me.

Another little moment of verisimilitude worth pointing out in conclusion: my best friend recently finished law school at LSU, and when Willoughby is being told off by Rebecca, there is a moment where she tells him that he’s not in Mississippi anymore and that, per Louisiana law, she will inherit half of Old Perry’s property. Kat turned to me and said that this was true and had always been true, and that the French had been pretty progressive with regards to the inheritance and property rights of daughters. So score one for Louisiana for once.

Lagniappe

Boomer: It amuses me to no end that we are releasing this conversation during the madness surrounding the final season of Game of Thrones, considering how much of that conflict also revolves around estates, the relative rights of bastard children, and last minute legitimizations of heretofore unrecognized heirs.

CC: I really liked the scene where Belizaire negotiates with the brother-in-law of the man he supposedly murdered to get an increasing number of his farm goods in exchange for a false confession that he has no intention of delivering. It’s a classic Br’er Rabbit-type con.

Brandon: The sound quality on the 25th anniversary DVD wasn’t exactly impeccable, so we ended up watching most of this film with the subtitles switched on for clarity. I highly recommend the experience. For some reason, the captions translated the Cajun French phrasings into English instead of merely transcribing them as-is, which means that while you’re watching Belizaire solve a murder mystery you also get to learn a little French as lagniappe.

Britnee: A large number of Cajuns from Down the Bayou are very hostile towards immigrants and refugees. There’s even a huge billboard in Cut Off with a photo of a victim of a car accident from over 20 years ago that says something like, “My son was killed by an illegal immigrant” (the car that hit the victim was driven by an undocumented shipyard worker). I’ve always hated driving along the beautiful bayou side and seeing that ignorant eyesore. Re-watching the reenactments of violence against the displaced Cajuns in Belizaire just added to my confusion of anti-immigrant sentiment Down the Bayou. I’ve had countless arguments with my elder family members about the similarities between modern day refuges and our own ancestors, and I always get the same response: “It’s not the same.” Perhaps it’s time for them to give Belizaire another watch.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
June: Boomer presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970)
July: CC presents Ginger and Cinnamon (2003)
August: Brandon presents Smithereens (1982)

-The Swampflix Crew

One thought on “Movie of the Month: Belizaire the Cajun (1986)

  1. Pingback: Finding Belizaire in the Modern Cajun | Swampflix

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