In Let Us Now Praise Susan Sontag, downtown auteur Sibyl Kempson revisits the fateful encounter between writer James Agee, photographer Walker Evans, and a family of Southern sharecroppers. The results — published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men — made both men’s reputations but did little for their impoverished subjects.
Seeking redress, Kempson imbues the family with a fierce poetic sensibility and a spiritual connection to nature. She has them sing folksy songs — many of which are quite beautiful — that hint at depths denied by the photographs’ flattened images of misery. The characters frequently wince at the flash of an offstage camera, reminding us that Evans didn’t let his subjects choose how they would be seen by posterity. They wear patchwork costumes indicating both their status as human collage and the historical burdens they bear. Ultimately “Sontag” herself appears — white forelock and all — to indict the Evans character for choosing fame over responsible artmaking.
But the piece’s charms sometimes jangle with its critique. Providing the sharecroppers with lyrical imagery to speak and modern slang to exclaim (OMG!) brings them closer to us but doesn’t bring us closer to their reality. That could be Kempson’s point, of course: that all documentary art eventually succumbs to fiction, so better to accentuate the authorial hand. But we’re still left with an ethical morass, no clearer than before.