Conrack is imbued with an endearing wisp of social sanity. The filmmakers are cognizant of the pitfalls of author Pat Conroy’s autobiographical tale of a privileged white man who blows into a tiny and isolated Southern black community in the late 1960s and proceeds to preach to his illiterate students of the opportunities open to them. In less assured or less thoughtful hands, this sort of narrative could be, and has been, grossly insensitive to the struggles of the impoverished communities being emphasized by the protagonists for improvement. There’s the potential in this subject matter to erroneously imply that the ledger of white guilt has been retroactively scrubbed clean, with little consideration of the (white) influences that directly led to the children’s social marginalization to begin with.
The pivotal difference is that white guilt is Conrack’s explicit, rather than the subconscious or the incidental, concern. This film’s version of Pat Conroy (Jon Voight, in the performance of his career), whom his students call Conrack out of a dialectal mispronunciation of his last name, is clearly understood to be a member of a very specific class: the educated white liberal with just a theoretical understanding of the oppression with which his students live under every day. To Conroy’s credit, he knows this, and, unlike a great number of liberals both real and imagined, he’s interested in getting his hands dirty with microcosmic social reform. In addition to introducing to them basic knowledge of the outside world, he tries to relate to the children his fallibility and his prejudices as a white authority figure. Most importantly, Conroy attempts to loosen the children up as people; he wants them to see their lives as something apart from drudgery. But, of course, he’s still a cocky hot dog, and the film recognizes that ego is both necessary for reform and of potentially great hazard to achieving change that doesn’t bend to the aspiring reformer’s respective will.
A simpler, dishonest film would’ve positioned Conroy’s primary opponents—the school’s black principal, Mrs. Scott (Madge Sinclair), and the white superintendent, Mr. Skeffington (Hume Cronyn)—as villains who’re too cowardly and blind to express proper gratitude for their benevolent new teacher’s arrival. But Conrack understands them as lifer residents of an insidious social system that Conroy is just beginning to fully grasp. Mrs. Scott is a difficult character for a modern viewer to orient themselves to, as she calls her children “babies” and inflicts corporeal punishment on them and generally belittles them in a manner that’s an explicit holdover from the atrocities of American slavery. (She even refers to herself and Conroy as “overseers.”) But we’re allowed, in Sinclair’s beautifully unsentimental performance, to see that Mrs. Scott embraces barely disguised slavery as a means of survival, and that she resents the children, who reflect a legacy of powerless ignorance she’s sought to personally escape. Mrs. Scott has no illusions about who’s ultimately at the top of the social caste system, and she’s not of the right color to afford Conroy’s flamboyantly theatrical rebellion antics. Mr. Skeffington is more of a caricature, of the privileged white old Southern guard, but he has moments of grace that point toward an interior decency that’s being partially eclipsed by a racist culture that Skeffington has accepted as a given.
In other words, Conrack is quietly informed by a variety of small gestures of common dramatic sense that gradually accumulate to a surprisingly poignant whole—a dramatic approach that was a specialty of the film’s underrated director, Martin Ritt, who displayed a rare and remarkable understanding of the ghosts and the poetry of the American South. Ritt frames the film’s images with an engaging openness that achieves a subtly ironic effect that recalls his prior film, Sounder: We’re constantly aware of the gorgeous openness of the island, even though it’s a social prison for the slave descendants Conroy is attempting to educate. There’s no surging emotional crescendo at the film’s conclusion to offer an illusory sense of closure either. Conrack is ultimately a bittersweet film, as it concerns a man’s dawning realization that he will never make the massive difference his ego and his conscience would prefer, though he manages, nevertheless, to acquaint a few children with fleeting happiness. That’s not everything, but it’s quite a bit more than nothing.
The image is appropriately somewhat soft and grainy, though foreground clarity is subtly sturdy (there’s little overt evidence of work having been done). Colors are faded, to an extent, and haven’t been altered for the sake of achieving an artificially robust quality, but that’s good news. This Blu-ray allows Conrack to revel in its roots as a low-budget 1970s American film, and the image’s almost ephemerally soft dimensions will come as a relief to folks who tire of the influence that post-production digital tinkering continues to wield over most contemporary pop films, which bear a distressing resemblance to video games. The English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio Mono is a little spotty, as key dialogue is occasionally improperly balanced with other diegetic effects, but it’s generally competent.
The commentary by film historians Paul Seydor and Nick Redman unsurprisingly wrestles with the issues of white paternalism that characterize a story of a white teacher who advises black students to look at the world his way. These issues were of paramount concern to the real Pat Conroy too, and Seydor and Redman provide quite a bit of engaging context regarding the differences between Conroy’s book, The Water Is Wide, and the subsequent film. It’s also refreshing to hear director Martin Ritt celebrated as an unusually graceful director of social-problem films. The care and spontaneity of the performances, particularly Jon Voight’s, are also discussed at length. Rounding out the package is an isolate score track and the theatrical trailer.
Conrack is the rare inspirational film that bothers to elucidate on both the benefits and the classist perils of bold, unfettered do-gooding.