For anyone without some kind of connection to North Carolina or the South in general, “Bright Leaves,” by Ross McElwee, will move dreadfully slow … that is, if you’re able to sit through its entirety. At one point he states, “It almost doesn’t matter what I’m filming,” which is evident by his lengthy passages through tobacco fields. However, because of my family heritage, I too am tied to the tobacco fields of North Carolina and was able to take some amount of satisfaction from what seemed to be an endless account of McElwee’s own family legacy. Throughout his inquiry of his great-grandfather’s connection to the start of the tobacco industry is the very product that has negatively affected each of us in one way or another.
After a riveting close-up of tobacco leaves for 10 minutes, we find that McElwee’s great-grandfather, John Harvey McElwee, lost his fortune and the rights to his cigarette brand to his rival James B. Duke. Thus many historical monuments, including Duke University, are named after one of the great founding fathers of our modern smoking addiction. With a sense of melancholy, McElwee concludes that the family legacy he desires to be proud of has come to be nothing more than the loss of a family fortune and a “measurable [contribution] to the global tobacco addiction.” These “lovely leaves,” he admiringly says, “with their dangerous, mysterious powers of seduction,” – in addition to the sick, suicidal consumer interest in them – are the cause of almost half a million deaths in America each year.
Many, if not all of us, have suffered from the loss of a loved one plagued with the cancerous results of smoking. I, for one, lost my grandfather – born and raised in the smoking culture of North Carolina – three years ago and am, to this day, unable to understand how he could have continued smoking until the day he died. In an interview with an ovarian cancer patient, McElwee asks why she is unable to quit smoking, and she admits in a depressing response, “Life steps in, and I find an excuse to smoke again.” This unfortunately sounds similar to my grandmother, who last month underwent an agonizing operation to remove one of her breasts in an attempt to rid her body of the cancer that had metastasized from her gallbladder. She, like so many others, succumbed to the illusive yet deadly poisons of smoking at an early age and is now another victim of the irreversible effects of smoking.
If there is anything worthwhile we can get from “Bright Leaves,” it is the realization that we must learn from those who have lost their lives to the “entrancing aurora of smoking” and rid ourselves of the cigarette.