In Wildcat, Ethan Hawke’s drama about Flannery O’Connor that premiered at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday, a smug white woman (Laura Linney) riding a city bus gives a Black child a penny. In response, the boy’s mother smacks the white woman, whose sanctimony quickly turns to shock.
It’s easy to imagine a contemporary viral video version of this moment trending on social media and sparking arguments about privilege. But the scene comes from O’Connor’s 1961 O. Henry-award winning short story, Everything That Rises Must Converge, and it’s part of how the filmmakers reveal the Georgia-born author’s background in the Jim Crow South and her evolution on the subject of race.
“Flannery O’Connor wrote about what she knew, and what she knew about was white hypocrisy,” says Maya Hawke, who plays multiple roles in the film, including the author. “What she knew how to look at was, ‘Oh, I don’t know how to fix this, but I see that there’s something deeply sick about this space that I grew up in and exist in.’”
The movie, one of the titles at the festival seeking distribution, intercuts between O’Connor’s real biography as she forged a literary career while ill with lupus and scenes from her stories, including The Life You Save Might Be Your Own, Parker’s Back and Revelation. O’Connor, who won the National Book Award in 1972 and was put on a U.S. postage stamp in 2015, has been credited with writing tart, anti-racist parables along with deep explorations of her Catholic faith. More recently, however, she has come under scrutiny for racist comments she made in her personal writings, particularly in her youth.
The revelation of her own history of racism makes O’Connor a complicated figure to mine in a modern biopic, but it didn’t deter the filmmakers. “If you don’t look at it, it doesn’t magically get better is the problem,” Ethan says. “There’s this kind of pervasive thought right now that we’re just not going to talk about things that are hurtful and angry. And then they just fester in a closet. I came to see [O’Connor] as kind of like if you were studying this beautiful tree. It grew in the Jim Crow South, that is where she was fed and raised. We were studying a tree that is magnificent, but that is where it grew. And she looked at it all, and she looked at it really hard, but she is of it.”
The genesis of WIldcat came from Maya’s high school English assignments to read O’Connor (shoutout to Mr. Rutter at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn). The now 25-year-old actress, daughter of Ethan and Uma Thurman, found in O’Connor a kindred spirit and a window into big ideas. At 15, she read O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal, written while the author was a student at the University of Iowa in 1946 and 47. “Prayer Journal had within it this young woman negotiating her desire to be great with her fear that she would not be,” Maya says. “And with her knowledge that the desire to be great was standing in the way of her ability to become herself.”
Maya delivered a monologue from A Prayer Journal as part of her audition for Julliard (she got in, before dropping out to take a role in a 2017 BBC production of Little Women). In 2019, after starring in the third season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, Maya met with Joe Goodman, the rights holder to O’Connor’s life and works, in hopes of optioning just A Prayer Journal. At that point, Maya brought in her father and his producing partner and wife, Ryan, to help her make a movie, and Ethan saw the potential to tell a bigger story. “I saw a huge opportunity in what [Goodman] possessed in that you could actually use Flannery’s letters and her stories and her own writing to make a portrait of her, to let her tell her own story,” Ethan says. He saw in some of O’Connor’s fictional Southern female characters a version of her mother, Regina O’Connor, who is played by Linney in the film, and he began writing the script with Shelby Gaines. “I started seeing that we could create a portrait of these people through Flannery’s creativity using double casting,” Ethan says. “And that might be something we haven’t seen before.”
The film gets at the many ways O’Connor was an outsider in Georgia in her era, as a Catholic in the Protestant South, a person with a disability due to lupus and a Northern-educated woman. “She was already a weird peacock in her own existence,” says Linney. “So, it makes sense that she would approach all of these issues the way that she did, with such verve and such a precise imagination and really by sticking her finger in a light socket.”
Wildcat‘s producers signed one of the Screen Actors Guild’s interim agreements, which allowed them to promote the film at Telluride during the ongoing actors strike. Asked if he is concerned that signing that agreement would inhibit the sale of the film, Ethan says, “I am happy not selling this movie to somebody that doesn’t meet what SAG is asking for. If you spent $60 million on a movie and you have aspirations of everybody in the world seeing it and having to make lunch boxes out of the movie, that’s a different goal. This is a very adventurous movie. It’s also a little punk.”