Ethan Hawke Urges Grace for Flannery O’Connor Despite Racism Allegations

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Speaking to a sold-out audience at Milwaukee’s Oriental Theater, actor Ethan Hawke offered a cautious warning: “Beware when you throw away your geniuses, they have much to teach us.”

Hawke is currently on a multi-city Q&A tour promoting “Wildcat,” his new film about the late Roman Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, starring his daughter Maya Hawke. The film, a passion project, was initially pitched by Maya and subsequently written, directed, and produced by her parents. As a practicing Episcopalian, progressive activist, and acclaimed artist, Hawke found a personal connection to the film’s subject: a woman grappling with her faith and creative ambitions.

The film has received generally positive to lukewarm reviews. I found the movie engaging, ambitious, and slightly ponderous at points, with an excellent lead performance by Maya Hawke.

However, the film’s release coincided with a reconsideration of O’Connor’s work amid allegations of racism. O’Connor, who lived in 1950s Georgia and died amid the beginnings of the civil rights movement in 1964, has been scrutinized for her posthumously published letters that suggest prejudiced views reflective of her time and place.

“About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent,” O’Connor wrote in a May 1964 letter. “My question is usually would this person be endurable if white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”

This has led to a posthumous cancellation attempt after a critical New Yorker profile during the summer 2020 protests, spotlighting her prejudices and negative thoughts toward Black Americans.

The National Catholic Register reported, “Flannery O’Connor’s name will no longer grace a dormitory at Loyola University Maryland due to charges that the author from Georgia was a racist. The controversy was ignited after Paul Elie’s article appeared in The New Yorker with the provocative title ‘How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?’ An online petition declared O’Connor guilty of racist sentiments and hate speech, although some signers admitted they didn’t know who she was.”

The question of O’Connor’s racism has haunted Hawke’s publicity tour. My fellow Pamphleteer colleague Jerod Ra’Del Hollyfield reports that Hawke addressed these questions when the tour stopped at Nashville’s Belcourt Theater earlier this month.

[O’Connor’s legacy] has come under fire in the post-Floyd years with a spate of articles interrogating her racism that remain firmly in place near the top of Google search results for her name. When Hawke was asked this inevitable question, his response was refreshingly measured. “People who view her that way aren’t really upset with her. They are upset with America.”

Speaking to the Milwaukee audience, Hawk acknowledged O’Connor’s racist views but offered grace in the face of her alleged complicity. He didn’t defend O’Connor’s more questionable content but advocated for a nuanced perspective, suggesting that offering grace can protect works of genius that benefit society. “If we’re all hypocrites, we must show each other grace.”

“America is a racist country,” he said. “And you have to understand that all the little people, average people at this time did little about it. You have to think what your grandchildren in 50 years will think about you now. How can you drive two hours from Chicago to Milwaukee while the planet is on fire? How can you eat sausage knowing where the meat comes from? We’re all hypocrites, but there needs to be grace.”

Speaking to an audience at New York City’s Angelia Film Center on May 3, Hawke affirmed that “the best of herself is pretty manifest in her fiction. Flannery O’Connor is like our country. She’s a recovering racist.” He continued, “She wrote what she knew and you can deal with that as you will. She’s not trying to make the world right by her writing. She’s just trying to tell her stories.”

Hawke admitted in an interview with IndieWire that discovering her racist letters made him reconsider the project. “I didn’t know any of that until we were deep in this project, and I said to Maya, ‘Well, do we quit? How afraid of this conversation are we?'” He continued with the project, believing it unwise to discard geniuses, especially those deeply influential to his life and spirituality.

“I decided that I wasn’t scared of this conversation,” he told IndieWire. “And that if she makes people angry, they have a right to be angry, and let’s talk about that because it doesn’t do us any good to just ignore it.”

Maya Hawke echoed this view in an interview with Roman Catholic apologist Bishop Robert Barron, saying, “Whether you like her or not — whether you think she is a good person or not — it doesn’t matter. We should talk about her.”

Tyler Hummel
Tyler Hummel
Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance journalist, a College Fix Fellow, and a member of the Music City Film Critics Association. He has contributed to The Dispatch, The New York Sun, Hollywood in Toto, The Pamphleteer, Law and Liberty, Main Street Nashville, North American Anglican, Living Church, and Geeks Under Grace.

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