In 1983, France's prodigious director (and film historian) Bertrand Tavernier, steeped in folklore and movies about the American South, felt impelled to make a pilgrimage. Luckily, he decided to film the trip and take along as his guide and co-director Southern-born Robert Parrish, the veteran film maker and one-time editor for John Ford.
The result is the laid-back, affectionately but astutely observed "Mississippi Blues," which begins a one-week Oscar-qualifying run at the Grande 4-plex (in the Sheraton Grande Hotel). Living up to its title, it concentrates on the region's music and its musicians, mainly blacks.
Tavernier and Parrish begin with the Oxford, Miss., home and burial place of William Faulkner, then move deeper into the Delta region. They go where few white visitors go: to black churches and tumble-down sharecroppers' shacks. The bulky, amiable Tavernier has a haircut in a combination black barbershop and pool hall, where the barber plays harmonica.
Everywhere they find a rich, irresistible musical heritage--boogie-woogie and gospel music, as well as the blues. "When I got no money and my baby's left me, that's when I get the blues," explains musician Joe Cooper. The shrewd and vivid Rev. Gapetooth Moore, a well-known performer who gave up show business for the ministry, says the music is the same in nightclubs and churches--"just the lyrics have changed."
Moore also speaks about the activist role the church has taken, that black people no longer talk about the golden slippers awaiting them in heaven but about the need for shoes "right here in Mississippi." Black sociologist Steve Milner expands upon the role of the church in the civil rights movement. A canny farmer named Othar Turner reveals a recipe for cooking possum and the secrets of how to turn a piece of sugar cane into a flute.
"Mississippi Blues" is no "American Pictures," the documentary that argued that nothing really has changed for blacks since slavery. Yet for all its cheerful, relaxed tone, it doesn't flinch from showing poverty along with the nostalgic images of small-town Main streets, white-pillared brick mansions and lush rural landscapes (captured with beautiful clarity by the eminent French cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn).
Although a young white American laments the possible loss of traditional black culture through various social and economic changes in the South, "Mississippi Blues" (Times-rated: Family) leaves us with the wry feeling that the poverty and inequality of centuries are going to be around a while longer to help preserve it. 'MISSISSIPPI BLUES'
A Corinth Films release of a Bertrand Tavernier-Yannick Bernard presentation, in association with Les Films A2 and the University of Mississippi. Directors Tavernier, Robert Parrish. Associate producer William Ferris. Camera Pierre-William Glenn. Film editor Ariane Boegli. With Roosevelt Barnes, Joe Cooper, Hayward Mills, Poppa Nele, Othar Turner, Rev. Gapetooth Moore, Wade Walton, Steve Milner, Sterling Plump, others.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.