Belizaire vs. Big Oil

While our current Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, has been mostly lost to time in the outside world, Britnee reports that it remains a cult classic among Cajun communities down the Bayou. That’s presumably because Belizaire is one of the few large-scale movie productions to ever represent Cajun culture on the big screen, at least in a positive light. Many Louisiana Cajun archetypes who appeared onscreen pre-Belizaire were portrayed as scary backwoods local yokels who presented a danger to their respective protagonists but had no inner lives themselves. As writer-director Glen Pitre is himself from Cut Off, Louisiana, his approach in Belizaire the Cajun was naturally much more empathetic & intimately knowledgeable when focusing on representing Cajun people on the big screen. Belizaire the Cajun is a favorite among Cajun locals because it is a film about Cajun locals from a Cajun local, something that’s much more commonly seen in documentaries than it is in narrative features. It was not, however, the first film to empathetically portray Cajun people on the big screen at feature length. It was only the first to do so with out exploiting those people for the benefit of a major oil company.

The 1948 “docudrama” Louisiana Story is a much earlier and, unfortunately, much better-known film than Belizaire. Nominated for an Oscar in Best Writing and awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its musical compositions performed by the Philadelphia Symphony, the film was very much respected in its day. It was even recently restored by the Library of Congress to preserve its historical legacy. That prestige is likely due to the film’s director, Robert H. Flaherty, who had a reputation for making factually inaccurate but historically significant “documentaries” like Nanook of the North. Much like how Nanook of the North shamelessly fudges the facts of Inuit culture to increase its own value as an anthropological curio, Flaherty’s “documentation” of Louisiana Cajun culture in Louisiana Story from an outsider’s perspective is entirely a work of fiction. It’s on even shakier moral ground than Flaherty’s other “docudramas,” though, since it wasn’t merely lying about Cajun culture to increase its own entertainment value. It was also lying to Cajun people (and the world at large) about the cultural & environmental impact of drilling for crude oil in rural locales. Presenting itself as a document of a real-world truth was a boldfaced lie, as anything Louisiana Story documented about the Cajun lifestyle was an incidental result of its true mission: generating good PR for Standard Oil.

Louisiana Story actively attempts to cultivate the perception that it is merely a slice-of-life document of a rural Cajun community’s harmless, but awkward interactions with the industrialized modern world. An early title card self-describes the plot as “Being an account of certain adventures of a Cajun (Acadian) boy who lives in the marshlands of Petite Anse Bayou in Louisiana.” That’s true to a point, as much of the film follows a young boy travelling with his beloved pet raccoon on a pirogue in gator-infested swamps. The boy is non-verbal almost to the point of being feral, and long stretches of Louisiana Story play like a Silent Era nature documentary as a result. What that description doesn’t convey, though, is the funding Standard Oil poured into the production to promote happy feelings toward the concept of local oil drilling. The “certain adventures” this boy & his leashed raccoon embark on almost all revolve around the arrival of an oil rig in their local swamp. After his father allows an oil company to drill on family property, the boy finds himself both curious & terrified of the giant machinery that slurps oil out of the “ground” beneath him. Naturally, he’s gradually reassured of the drilling’s safety and local yokels everywhere are reassured that oil drilling puts food on families’ tables and a shiny new rifle in every young boys’ hands. God bless Standard Oil and God bless America.

What’s fascinating about Louisiana Story is that its greatest merits are in direct opposition with its oil-friendly message. In its best moments, it’s a gorgeous work that documents wetland environments that have been steadily disappearing over the seven decades since it was filmed. The irony there is that the oil industry is directly responsible for much of that wetlands erosion, which has left the state much more vulnerable to hurricane damage and loss of seafood & wildlife. This the exact kind of brilliantly executed, vile propaganda that does real-world damage, because it tricks people into believing corporations are our friends, that they have our best interests in mind. The Library of Congress was justified in finding this film worthy of preservation & restoration as its casting of long-gone local faces & landscapes is invaluable. Still, Louisiana Story only pretended to have an interest in empathetically portraying Cajun people on the big screen, when its true Standard Oil-approved mission was even more harmfully exploitative than contemporary genre films’ depiction of Cajuns as dangerous backwoods types. No wonder Belizaire the Cajun felt like a breath of fresh air in the limited lung capacity of Cajun pop media. It may not be as artistically refined as Louisiana Story or as continuously entertaining as other outsider views of Cajun culture strewn about various crime thrillers, but it did offer something to Cajun people no other narrative feature had before: respect.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun,check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997), and last week’s examination of an IMAX-scale Katrina documentary from its director.

-Brandon Ledet

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