It seems clear that A Serious Man (2009) is the Coen Brothers’ most explicitly Jewish film, but it is certainly far from their only Jewish film. But O Brother, Where Art Thou? seems to be their film that most explicitly approaches Christianity – specifically, white Southern Christianity. That’s not to say O Brother, Where Art Thou? doesn’t have a framework of Judaism within it also: besides the cross, the film often deals in Old Testament imagery, with the parting of the waters that catapults a miraculous flood, with a raft able to survive with a fraction of those present. It’s either salvation from God, or progress into the New Deal future through hydroelectric dams flooding previously inhabited areas. The film’s Classical Odyssean narrative – relying on surprise and the unexpected – resembles the philosophy towards God (and a broken marriage) expressed by the Rabbi in A Serious Man – a sense of come what may.
But the film’s most explicit allusion to Judaism is through staging a KKK rally in Mississippi, led by the town’s Christian religious leaders and political hopefuls – like the film’s Homer, Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall) – that denounces miscegenation, Jews and African Americans. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, the rally comes adjacent to the rise of racist, anti-Semitic Nazism and fascism with rallies across Europe and America. The Coens may not be Spike Lee, but reducing lynchings and burning crosses to farce are still personal. The film expresses progressive, racially inclusive politics in the decades before the three main protagonists are released from their imagined prisons in the 1980s, relying upon allyship and material support towards other marginalised people – their singer friend Tommy Johnson (Michael Badalucco). Of course, ‘Tommy’ has its own racial connotations – to the notion of an ‘Uncle Tom’. African American characters are often to the side of the film in unspoken roles – working the railroad, prison labourers – but the ruins from slavery in the South and their presence is still felt. Perhaps ironically, it’s the black characters that survive – a white bankrobber dragged into police custody, lit by torches, boasting of his upcoming execution – as Tommy survives lynching. With the three protagonists given their own extrajudicial nooses, Tommy has no noose, as the black gravediggers around them sing their own song.
God is simultaneously knowable and unknowable, depending on one’s perspective. The Coens split between three characters with their own religious perspectives. Everett Ulysses (George Clooney), in a moment of crisis, begs the Lord for mercy and forgiveness, apologising for his pride and wanting to see his family again, in an overhead shot as though the viewer is God Himself. O Brother, Where Art Thou? is a circular film: Ulyssees rejects baptism, casts doubt on the involvement of God (though begins, if briefly, to accept the sorcerous notion of Pete reduced to a toad), and ends by once again advocating for a “brave new world” of scientific reason and an American ideology of industry – the spreading of electrictal grids – but also adopts hope for an age of reason and the demise of “mumbo jumbo” and superstition. ‘Mumbo jumbo’ is equally problematic – a corruption and rejection of African tribalism by the colonial English language. But whether it’s the 1930s, 1980s, 2000 or 2019 – America and the South remains, despite demographic shifts – a majority religious and Christian country, driven in spaces by hate, xenophobia, racism – and indeed, superstition. The passage of time hasn’t solved the South.
In O Brother, Where Art Thou? we recognise the hypocrisy of Christianity. In white robes, we’re baptised, but can a life of criminality be all forgiven by cloudy, dirty water? Ulysses’ chain gang companions, Delmar (Tim Blake Nelson) and Pete (John Turturro) proceed through the film with a semblance of religious belief that arguably provides their salvation: Ulysses leads their journey through lies and the prospect of material survival and riches, itself sinful. Christianity is corrupted: it’s purely a vehicle for Big Dan Teague (John Goodman) to exploit the lucrative Christian market with Bible sales in the same era as Paper Moon (1973) – without practicing Christian values himself, starting violent fights and stealing all that Ulysses and Delmar have to them, murdering animals: Christianity as something to preach down the radio, not affect one’s life.