Ahh, Florida: land of sunshine, clear blue water, and unparalleled corruption. Seems like the perfect place to vacation, right? Maybe you’d even want to live there? Well, “Cracker Crazy” has made it a priority to slap that ambition right out of you.
Ok, ok, perhaps this documentary doesn’t exactly want audiences to cross off Florida as a travel destination; that might be a bit extreme. Instead, “Cracker” looks to educate the viewer on the history of the state, and how injustice, rivers of blood, and towers of pain were used to build the Sunshine State as we know it today. It’s a history lesson projected on barbed wire, and while this eye-opening dip into the past both near and far is fascinating work, the nagging issue of pace chokes the venomous bite.
“Cracker” starts over 12,000 years ago, with the introduction of the “Paleoindians,” Florida’s first recorded civilization. Here, “Cracker” establishes the central argument the rest of the film returns to repeatedly: how the native culture was mistreated, murdered, and replaced at the hands of Whitey. Through the years of Spanish “explorers” such as Hernando de Soto and Ponce de Leon (their butchering ways are still celebrated today in the state’s historical branding) to the rise of Andrew Jackson and his concentrated efforts to chase runaway slaves out of the bitterly racist state and build a shrine to Anglo greed and merciless fraud (and makes the 20 dollar bill seem pretty grotesque in the process), “Cracker” uses a painstaking historical tone to itemize these nightmarish snippets of history.
Without true production polish at his disposal, director Georg Koszulinski manages just fine building this tapestry of shame. Employing a menagerie of historical film footage from the Florida State Archives, recreations, and various period painting and drawings, “Cracker” is delivered bluntly, with minimal voiceover and a healthy amount of text. This doesn’t do wonders for the pace, which can be PBS-glacial at times. With a title like “Cracker Crazy,” expectations cannot help but be primed for a documentary leaning more to the irreverent side of life, but Koszulinski has something far more chilling and spirit-breaking in mind for his film.
As the action heads into the 19th and 20th centuries, the director’s meticulous research takes a front row seat and the historical blemishes start to add up in huge numbers. The plight of the Seminoles reveals itself to be Florida’s biggest historical wince, along with the liberal stripping of the state’s natural resources and beauty for obscene profit. The boom of white “settlers” is given ample screen time: these titular figures braved the cheap land to form a new home for themselves after all the natives were run out of town, building their empire on twigs, and in many cases, the bones of the dead. “Cracker” then moves on to the story of Henry Flagler, a ruthless tycoon who had his hand in the birth of Miami and southern Florida tourist life.
The events of Rosewood, the bungled 2000 presidential elections, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan are mere slivers of story found in “Cracker.” At times, the sheer amount of bullet points can be overwhelming; the fragmented grab bag of history and horror perhaps too unwieldy for one documentary to even hope to cover. Regardless of its iffy aim, “Cracker” enters some impossibly foreboding and shockingly unheard of selections from the history books.
But where is Big D himself, Walter Elias Disney? Though promising a juicier vivisection of the Disney Empire, “Cracker” doesn’t really have much energy to explore the impact of Walt Disney World on the state outside of its biggest irony: the fact that Walt took thousands of dead square miles, branded useless by both the government and the Seminoles, and turned into a billion-dollar property that’s come to define the financial core of the state. Yikes.
There are moments where “Cracker” feels like it’s headed toward a discussion on the unbridled tourism industry of Florida, even opening the film with teasing glimpses of old commercials and promotional clips. The subject is never really broached outside of a jab or two, leaving a huge gap in the storytelling. Indeed, the culture of kitsch is a topic that has given birth to many pieces of media, but “Cracker” is missing out on a great opportunity to compare and contrast the current Floridian atmosphere of thrill rides and tan lines to the early days of the state’s tourist ambitions. Disney is only the tip of the iceberg here, but Koszulinski has little interest in attacking the most obvious argument.
Where “Cracker” ends up is exactly where it began: on the backs of those who built the state, and continue to do so today. Furthering a brutal heritage of exploiting migrant workers (in essence, a return to slavery), “Cracker” scrutinizes Florida’s illegal workforce, quietly entrenched in poverty while effectively maintaining the economy for the rest of the population to enjoy. It’s a sobering closer, but a crucial and acidic point that Koszulinski makes effectively, cautiously placing this final piece of inhumanity into a bottle and tossing it into the cinematic ocean; hoping someone, somewhere will be outraged at the plight of the state’s hardest workers.
Even if it isn’t powered by a jet engine, “Cracker Country” raises some important questions on how Florida has been presented in the history books, and raises some eyebrows on how complacent the public has been with the literal fleecing of environmental resources and human rights. This is not an upbeat film, but taken as a dry historical document, it’s invaluable as a tool to better understand how the state came to be.Rating: B+