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

Glen Pitre vs. Hurricane Katrina

There are many large-format movie screens spread across the city’s too-plentiful AMC multiplexes that profess to be “IMAX” theaters. It isn’t until you visit the city’s only true IMAX screen at the Aquarium that you realize how blatant of a lie those faux-MAX screens are by comparison. I was most recently confronted with that contextual reminder myself at a New Orleans Film Fest screening of the gross-out romantic body horror Are We Not Cats?. Watching the full hideous majesty of that film’s trichophagia & self-surgery on a skyscraper-scale movie screen was a memorably horrific experience, one that makes me wonder why that cinematic resource isn’t put to better use more often. Instead of regularly projecting similar artsy-fartsy monstrosities like The Neon Demon, Climax, or We Are the Flesh on the city’s biggest movie screen, it’s a resource that’s wasted on bullshit nature documentaries produced by tech nerds like Greg MacGillivray. Having developed three new cameras specifically designed to optimize the IMAX format himself, MacGillivray is seemingly more personally passionate about technical accomplishments than cinematic poetry. His movies boast titles like Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, Arabia 3D, and Greece: Secrets of the Past. They’re more concerned with format than they are with content, using the IMAX tech he helped develop more as an amusement park attraction than a theatrical tool. To me, the biggest offense in this waste of local theatrical space is that our one IMAX screen is regularly used to relive the horrors of Hurricane Katrina for visiting tourists, as if that event were just another Coral Reef Adventure, ripe for entertainment. It’s also an offense that directly concerns our current Movie of the Month.

When Glen Pitre directed Belizaire the Cajun in the mid-80s, he seemed poised to graduate from making low-budget, Cajun-French “gumbo Westerns” for local markets to directing much bigger indie affairs for legitimate festival distribution. Belizaire the Cajun’s presence at high-profile festivals like Sundance & Cannes offered a much wider platform for Pitre’s Cajun-fried indie movies, and you can find pictures of the former Cut Off resident rubbing elbows with the likes of Spike Lee & Jim Jarmusch while working that circuit. Those bigger productions never materialized, though. After a couple ignored thrillers & made-for-TV productions, Pitre retreated from the narrative feature format and sought to preserve & promote Cajun culture in a different way: by making documentaries. Pitre has dedicated the last few decades of his career to documentaries on local Nature & local culture, with a special focus on the dangers of wetlands erosion. That’s how Pitre found himself in collaboration with California tech nerd Greg MacGillivray. With funding from The Weather Channel to produce a program on Climate Change and funding from The Audubon Institute to educate tourists on the dangers of wetlands erosion, Pitre wrote and co-directed a 40-minute documentary for MacGillivray titled Hurricane on the Bayou. If the documentary short were made at any other time in Louisiana history, it would have been forgotten by now – no more worthy of discussion or easy to access than any of Pitre’s other nondescript local docs. Unfortunately, it began filming three months before the coast was wrecked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so it’s been playing in constant rotation in the city’s only legitimate IMAX screen for almost fifteen years now. Hurricane on the Bayou is, for worse or for much worse, the most easily accessible Glen Pitre film in terms of both theatrical and home video distribution.

Hurricane on the Bayou was originally conceived as a hypothetical “what if” scenario, warning gravely of the damage a high-category hurricane might cause without a healthy wetlands barrier protecting the coast. From what I can gather from the “Making Of” featurette produced by The Weather Channel, the film was already in post-production when Katrina hit. What had previously been filmed for IMAX theater distribution was a tidy educational film in which a baby-faced, Disney Channel-ready Amana Shaw took the audience on a tour of our actively disappearing wetlands inbetween narrating a fictional familial drama played out by real-life alligators and staging awkward fais do-do jam sessions with fellow local musicians Tab Benoit & Alan Toussaint (R.I.P.). Besides its large-format Nature footage, the other major showcase of IMAX tech lied in its Rescue 911-level dramatic reenactments of a 1950s Hurricane disaster, complete with CGI simulations of what a modern storm might look like – which is what I assume drew MacGillivray to the project in the first place. After Katrina hit, the tasteful thing to do would’ve been to abandon the project entirely and eat the loss. Instead, the crew retuned from Los Angeles to fight past local blockades and sneak their way back into the city to shoot large-format misery porn. Where MacGillivray’s projects would usually capture the majesty of swimming dolphins or some other screensaver bullshit, he instead hauled expensive, ginormous cameras around a flooded New Orleans to capture a city in emotional turmoil (including a now emotionally devastated Amanda Shaw). He then slapped a few paragraphs of narration from Meryl Strep on top to afford that exploitation an air of prestige. It’s gross. The project never should have been completed, much less have been allowed to play on continuous loop for fifteen years so that drunken tourists have a place to escape the sun for an hour of passive, air-conditioned entertainment.

I don’t think any less of Pitre for participating in this NOLAsploitation documentary. Watching the ”Making Of” featurette, it’s clear his heart was in the right place. Pitre gets incredibly choked up recounting the hell of filming in post-Katrina floodwaters, describing the roadside corpses & decimated cityscape as if he had navigated a warzone. The stated purpose of the documentary was to promote “good stewardship of our habitat” in the context of preserving wetlands (this was before Katrina floods were recontextualized as a man-made infrastructure disaster, another reason why this film should disappear forever), but Pitre is much more truthful about its actual effect. He explains that “people need to see it” on the biggest screen possible, since Katrina’s full impact isn’t truly felt on small-screen TV news reports. The way that documented misery clashes with the cutesy Amanda Shaw tour of the city & CGI disaster porn filmed before Katrina doesn’t sit right with me at all, but I at least empathize with his motivations to see the project through. Still, catching a glimpse of Pitre sporting a Belizaire the Cajun promotional t-shirt while guiding his Los Angeles collaborators through the swamp makes me incredibly sad. Why isn’t that the kind of movie being screened at the city’s only IMAX theater, along with other underserved local productions like Dirty Rice or Cane River? At the very least, this far out from Katrina we should have a more updated, nuanced documentary on the wetlands erosion topic screening in that format. Or, better yet, MacGillivray could supply us with a localized version of his Coral Reef Adventure frivolities – maybe one where gators & turtles swim around in swamp water for 40 minutes to zydeco music (which is exactly how Hurricane on the Bayou begins). After recently seeing A Real Movie in that impressive venue, it’s just such a shame to know that this miserable, exploitative dreck is what’s eating up its screentime – almost exclusively to the benefit of tourists. It also being the only readily available Glen Pitre film, as opposed to something like Belizaire the Cajun, is only the bitterest of lagniappe.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at its modernized counterpoint, Dirty Rice (1997).

-Brandon Ledet

Finding Belizaire in the Modern Cajun

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.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the 1986 historical drama Belizaire the Cajun, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

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