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Monday February 26th 2024

O Brother, Where Art Thou? | 2000

Homer’s Odyssey set in Depression-era Deep South, with a title taken from the socially-conscious movie Joel McCrea intends to make in Preston Sturges’ 1941 Sullivan’s Travels, and the presence of Johns Goodman and Turturro, It can only be the Coen brothers.

Using a revolutionary digital colour manipulation process, and accompanied by a soundtrack which unexpectedly turned out to be a smash, the Coens’ picaresque tale was shot in almost entirely in central Mississippi, around  the Jackson area.

Escaping a chain gang, Everett (George Clooney), Pete (John Turturro) and Delmer (Tim Blake Nelson) survive by snatching a chicken from a little farmhouse, which is Tilda Bogue, off Davis Crossing Road, about five miles north of Canton between US 51 North and I-55 North.

Meaning ‘rocky creek’ in the Choctaw language, Tilda Bogue  is a cabin built in the mid-1800s, relocated to its current spot, lovingly restored to become a private home and, in 1983, placed on the National Register of Historic Places (the cemetery was also built on the farmland here).

The three attempt the time honoured hobo tradition of jumping aboard a freight train, but fail spectacularly, settling for a handcar driven by a blind old-timer who makes wild predictions about their future. The scene was filmed at Leland, east of Greenville, on the Columbus and Greenville Railway, which runs east-west across the middle of the state.

South of Jackson,‘Hogwallop Farm’, where Pete’s treacherous cousin, Wash, tips off the law that the fugitives are sleeping in the barn, was filmed on farmland west of Hazlehurst.

Wash’s young son helps them escape but they show little gratitude to the boy, taking his car in a quest to recover Everett’s proceeds from a bank robbery.

Delmer is redeemed and cleansed of his sins at a white-garbed mass baptism ceremony, taking place at Alligator Lake, on Long Lake Road, a couple of miles north of Vicksburg, on I-20 toward the Louisiana border.

Everett, reasonably assuming that the state of Mississippi is unlikely to accept Delmer’s redemption, continues the search, pausing to pick up itinerant guitarist Tommy Johnson (Chris Thomas King).

Tommy Johnson was a real Mississippi bluesman who, according to his own cultivated legend, sold his sold to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for musical dexterity. If the story sounds familiar, that’s probably because it was later attributed to the more famous, but entirely unconnected, Robert Johnson.

To their delight, Tommy tells the boys of a place where they can get paid for singing into a can. Radio station ‘WEZY’, which becomes the unwitting birthplace of the Soggy Bottom Boys, was built for the film and afterwards dismantled, at Valley Park, west of Hwy 61, a few miles further north from Alligator Lake.

Another real-life character crossing the boys’ path is bipolar bank robber George (definitely not Baby Face) Nelson (Michael Badalucco), who offers them a lift to the town of ‘Itta Bena’. The local bank he storms flamboyantly into is the old Bank of Yazoo City, on South Main Street at the corner of West Commercial Street, in Yazoo City, about 25 miles northwest of Canton.

Everett, Pete and Delmer’s good fortune runs out when they fall under the spell of the sirens’ song and Pete is apparently turned into a horny toad, at D’Lo Water Park, 135 D’Lo Road, in the oddly-named town of D’Lo, near Mendenhall, about 20 miles southeast of Jackson.

Nobody seems quite sure how the town got its name – explanations include exasperation at the river being "too damn low", or the French "De l'Eau", from “De l'eau sans potable” – "Not drinking water".

The land that is now D’Lo Water Park was once sacred to the Choctaw, who held rituals on the banks of the Strong River. If you think you hear the seductive siren song, don’t worry – the musical humming sound is caused by trapped air bubbles as the river flows over the falls. The Choctaw name for the stream was ‘kun'ta hatchie’, which means "river whistling".

Everett and Delmer roll into the town of Canton on West Peace Street, on the south side of the town’s Courthouse Square, in time to witness the political rally for Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), the embarrassingly literal “friend of the little man”. It’s here that Everett recognises the trio of singing girls as his estranged daughters and sets off to find his wife, Penny.

Both A Time To Kill and My Dog Skip were filmed in the beautifully preserved historic town, which boasts not one, but two Movie Museums. You can buy tickets for the museums at the Canton Welcome Center, on the west side of the Square.

Although it appears to be nearby, the ‘Woolworth’ store, where Everett finds Penny (Holly Hunter) but from which he’s subsequently barred, is the old Saxton Hardware store, 128 South Main Street on the northwest corner of West Jefferson Street, back in Yazoo City, just a block north of the 'Itta Bena Bank'  location.

Down to the southwest, in Church Hill, about 15 miles northeast of Natchez, the mansion of Stokes’ powerful opponent, Governor  Pappy O’Daniel (Charles Durning), where he sits on the porch discussing political tactics with his cronies, is the Cedars Plantation, 13688 River Road (Hwy 553) at Church Hill Road. The elegant plantation home is now a guest house.

It’s back to Vicksburg for the ‘Homer Stokes Hoedown’, where the Stokes campaign implodes but the Soggy Bottom Boys prove a mighty hit, which was staged in the auditorium of the Southern Cultural Heritage Foundation, 1302 Adams Street. Back in 1988, scenes for Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning had also been filmed here.

His prophecies having proved true, the blind handcar driver finally trundles away on the Shreveport to Jackson line of the Kansas City Southern Railway where it crosses Front Street at South Main Street in the town of Edwards, about 20 miles east of Vicksburg.

One scene not filmed in the area is the creepily ludicrous Ku Klux Klan ceremony, staged back in California. “I didn’t want to shoot a Klan rally in Mississippi.” says director Joel Coen. And you can’t argue with that.