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Ethan Hawke Warns Not To ‘Throw Away’ Geniuses Like Flannery O’Connor

Hawke’s defense of O’Connor proposes offering grace as a way to protect works of genius that are beneficial for society.


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

Hawke is currently on a multi-city Q&A tour promoting his new film “Wildcat,” a biopic about the late Roman Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor, starring his daughter Maya Hawke. The film is a passion project, originally pitched by Maya and subsequently written, directed, and produced by her parents. Being a practicing Episcopalian, progressive activist, and acclaimed artist, Hawke found a great deal of personal relation to the subject of his film: a woman who too grappled 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 the artistic world’s reconsideration of O’Connor’s work due to allegations of racism. She lived in the Jim Crow South, in 1950s Georgia, and died amid the civil rights movement’s beginnings in 1964. Many of her posthumously published letters have suggested that her views reflected many of the unfortunate prejudices of her place and time.

“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 resulted in a posthumous cancellation attempt following a brutal New Yorker profile amid the height of the summer 2020 protests, highlighting many of 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’Conner’s racism has peppered 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 didn’t mince words about O’Connor’s racist views but offered grace in the face of her alleged complicity. He didn’t feel the need to defend O’Connor’s more questionable content but suggested a nuanced view that offering grace is valuable to protect works of genius that are beneficial for 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, he 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 continues, “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 did admit in an interview with IndieWire that the discovery of her racist letters had 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 decided to continue with the project, believing that it is unwise to throw away geniuses, particularly one that was 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.” 

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