> Volume 6 > Number 34


Ross McElwee

Ross McElwee
Charleen Swansea
Patricia Neal

Release: 25 Aug. 04

Bright Leaves


Brought back to the South after his mother worries that his sickly frame is from too much northern exposure, Ross McElwee takes on his own family history, a story of riches and poverty, of innovation and disappointment. More than anything, he finds that his great-grandfather, the creator of the formula for Bull Durham tobacco, may have been the subject of the 1950 melodrama Bright Leaf, “a cinematic heirloom, a home movie reenacted by Hollywood stars.” In it, his ancestor could be the character played by Gary Cooper, who makes a fortune in the antebellum tobacco industry in North Carolina before falling under the tutelage of his seedy competitor. There was a real competitor, and by the midpoint of Bright Leaves, one might be compelled to call Buck Duke reality’s Snidely Whiplash.

But McElwee pulls back from turning Bright Leaves into a chance for vindication; it's more an apology as he spends a needless amount of time essaying an anti-smoking diatribe. Thankfully, McElwee delivers a thoughtful commentary on the meaning of family and cinema as one -- the way people have intertwined their own lives to the films that surround them. Whether Gary Cooper’s character in Bright Leaf is based on John McElwee isn’t particularly important to the human race, but, as one person puts it, if the family feels better with that form of history, let’s not ruin it for them.

McElwee uses much of the film to ruminate on his relationship to a son raised in front a film camera. There are great insights constructed in these moments, and film historian Vlada Petric delivers the film’s finest lines by encapsulating all the meanings McElwee strains to understand in his search for his family and the version of the truth they’ve harvested

©2004, David Perry,, 20 August 2004