The biggest shift in onscreen Cajun representation achieved by Belizaire the Cajun, our current Movie of the Month, is that it was a film written & directed by a member of the Cajun community. Previously, most Cajun representation on the big screen came in two forms: documentaries about Cajun culture filtered through the eye of an outsider and as dangerous backwoods yokels that spooked the protagonists of thrillers who wandered too far outside the safety of the big city. Belizaire marked a shift from there only being movies about Cajuns to there also being movies by Cajuns. Writer-director Glen Pitre had already been making self-funded “gumbo Westerns” for local markets before Belizaire, but that film was a breakthrough in budget & distribution thanks to financial & creative support from The Sundance Institute. Still, Belizarie the Cajun was somewhat of an educational drama about the history of Cajun culture; it did not do much in the way of representing what contemporary Cajun culture looked like in modern times. That update didn’t arrive in any significant way for another decade, represented in a film by fellow local director Pat Mire.
Dirty Rice didn’t reach quite as far or wide as Belizaire the Cajun, but it did see its own international distribution thanks to its inclusion in the 1997 London Film Festival. The film was also an extremely localized hit – breaking records for the longest running movie to play in Lafayette theaters, thanks to what ended up being a five-month engagement. It’s been largely forgotten in the decades since. Currently, the only official means of distribution for the film is for libraries to order DVDs from Pat Mire directly, for $100 a copy. The copy I borrowed from my own library was a VHS transfer with no closed captions tracks or special features – just a barebones home video release with zero fanfare. Considering the movie’s lowkey romantic & crisis-of-faith conflicts, this lack of prestigious distribution does make some sense, since there isn’t much of interest on the screen for anyone who’s not especially fixated on cinematic representations of Cajun culture. However, since there are so few narrative feature films in the Cajun canon (not to be consumed with Bobby Hebert, The Cajun Cannon), Dirty Rice is a significant work worthy of study & discussion – one that’s even more lost to time than Belizaire.
In the film, Benjamin Mouton plays a big-city architect who abandons his corporate life in the middle of a major development deal to save his family’s struggling rice farm on the Bayou. The divisions between his rural Cajun hometown and his corporate New Orleans world are about as broad & cliché as you would expect. The architect leaves behind his blueprints & business-woman girlfriend for shrimp boots and an old-fashioned Cajun girl; it’s a kind of reverse crisis-of-faith narrative as he rediscovers his Cajun roots and leaves behind the atheistic temptations of big-city hedonism. His new Cajun girlfriend challenges his prejudices against the community where he was raised, balking at his distrust of old-world holistic medicines with the retort “It’s not superstition if it works.” His big-city ex become increasingly villainous as he comfortably backslides into his old Cajun ways, eventually exiting the film to a chorus of “boos” when she calls him a “coon-ass” in a local dive bar. Meanwhile, he struggles to transform the farm into a profitable business despite its poor rice yield by distilling homemade rice wine & selling crawfish from his fields in city markets. Both the romance & bank repossession crises work out exactly the way you’d expect, but narrative surprise was never Dirty Rice’s focal point anyway. This is a film that’s merits are defined entirely by local flavor.
The depictions of Cajun culture you’ll see in Dirty Rice aren’t all that different from what’s onscreen in Belizaire the Cajun despite the century’s difference in their respective settings. It’s difficult to decipher exactly how much of that overlap is true to historical accuracy and how much is due to the national popularization of Cajun culture around the time of the two films’ releases. Zydeco music & Cajun chefs like Paul Prudhomme saw an unusual uptick in pop culture attention in the decade between these those films, which is likely what helped them get greenlit in the first place. As such, both films pay particular attention to the local musicians featured in their soundtracks (in the case of Dirty Rice, Wayne Toups & Zydeco Cajun), and the local specialties of their cuisine. This is the first narrative film I can remember ever seeing stage a traditional Louisiana crawfish boil, complete with newspaper-lined tables and a Tony Chachere’s salt bath for the little buggers when they’re fresh out of the pot. Fried catfish, gumbo, and conversational Cajun-French flavor the air around the film’s barebones romantic & financial conflicts, so that it gradually amounts to more than the sum of its parts. There’s even a sequence that thinks to document the costumes & rituals of Courir de Mardi Gras, which is a major aspect of Cajun culture that isn’t touched in Belizaire.
Belizaire the Cajun is a better movie than Dirty Rice, especially when considered only on its dramatic merits outside the context of Cajun culture documentation. Both films are important works for bringing the basic tenants of Cajun culture to the world at large, though. They’re rare examples of Cajun creators representing their own culture onscreen on their own terms. That localized culture preservation leads to some great people-watching among the extras in both films too, which might be the one area where Dirty Rice has Belizaire the Cajun beat in terms of quality. It’s one thing to see local extras restaging age-old Cajun rituals in period garb in Belizaire, but it’s almost even more substantial to see those customs & mannerisms continue into the blue jeans & sunglasses era represented in the modern setting of Dirty Rice. Both films are substantial in their allowance for Cajuns to control their own cinematic representation in legitimate movie productions, but only Dirty Rice can claim to show how that community’s traditions still looked & thrived in modern times.