Bright Leaves is an independent documentary by Ross McElwee that talks about his family's roots in the North Carolina tobacco farming industry. Originally released in 2003, Bright Leaves starts with a look at the old black and white film starring Gary Cooper (Bright Leaf), which chronicled the life of a tobacco grower in the 19th century. McElwee family legend tells him that Bright Leaf is based on filmmaker Ross McElwee's great-grandfather, who created the Bull Durham brand of tobacco.
The movie starts off with his love of old films as he takes us through some of the old films and photographs in his collection. That leads to his belief based on his family's legend that the movie Bright Leaf was based on his great-grandfather's life. His grandfather spent much of his life battling a larger tobacco company (the Duke Tobacco Company) just the same way that Gary Cooper did in Bright Leaf.
Bright Leaves is really more of a personal essay about McElwee's family and their history than it is an in depth look into the tobacco industry. McElwee spends a lot of time speaking about his relationships with different people in his family and the legend his family passed down about his great-grandfather's struggles with the Duke Tobacco Company but I found the documentary lacking in concrete facts and evidence. I would have liked to have seen a bit more investigative reporting.
Bright Leaves was certainly very interesting as a historical look into tobacco farming in North Carolina during the 19th century and it certainly holds interest for anyone who is a fan of McElwee's documentaries. But if you're looking for an expose, you won't find it with this movie.
Bright Leaves is 105 minutes in length. It contains bonus features including a director's statement, film notes by Godfrey Cheshire, biographies, and music tracks. It was released by First Run Features.