Bright Leaves: Another Gem from Ross McElwee

Documentarian Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) offers another personal examination of Southern history and life with Bright Leaves, a personal memoir tracing his own connection to North Carolina and its tobacco industry.

McElwee is drawn to the subject after meeting his second cousin John, a film memorabilia collector, who shows McElwee an old Warner Bros. film from 1950, Bright Leaf, in which Gary Cooper stars (alongside Patricia Neal and Lauren Bacall) as a tobacco magnate who builds himself up from nothing only to lose everything to a rich, powerful, and ruthless Southern gentleman.

The film reminds McElwee of the stories his father used to tell about his great grandfather, who built up a fortune in the tobacco business, but spent years, and tens of thousands of dollars, suing the Duke family (the most powerful tobacco growers in American history, and founders of Duke University) for stealing his famous “Durham Bull” brand. The battle ruined him and left the family bankrupt. McElwee decides to investigate the origins of the film, which leads him to explore his own connection to the tobacco industry. Even though his family is no longer in the business, McElwee feels guilty about his family’s “contribution to global tobacco addiction.”

McElwee interviews cancer patients, including former patients of his late father, a surgeon. He also interviews several friends who smoke or who have ties to the tobacco industry. In focusing on Bright Leaf, he finds himself interviewing film historian Vlada Petric and actress Neal.

All of this is intertwined with a very personal family history involving his relationship with his father, his son, and the whole issue of smoking.

Released: August 25, 2004

Jun 21, 2005

Released by First Run Features