My first home after moving to Texas in 1975 was in East Texas, specifically Lufkin. I quickly absorbed the peculiarities of the Pineywoods, where lunch is dinner, dinner is supper, meals are something one “fixes” and some folks pronounce Mrs. as miz-riz.
(True story: A young Lufkin lady I knew discerned from my Brooklyn accent that I was British.)
I spent two years there and remain fascinated by East Texas. So do movie makers. “Bernie” was an oddly true story from Carthage. Back in 1997, there was the “Hands on a Hard Body” documentary about a Longview contest in which a pickup truck went to whoever could keep their hands on it the longest.
Today I’m touting a new cinematic glimpse at East Texas.
“Tomato Republic” is kind of a Rorschach test on progress in that very conservative part of a very conservative state. The hourlong documentary is an engrossing look at the 2013 mayoral race in Jacksonville, a city of about 15,000. The film is a product of P&R Productions, founded by Jenna Jackson, who grew up in Jacksonville. She’s listed as director, along with Anthony Jackson and Whitney Graham Carter.
The mayoral race featured incumbent Kenneth Melvin, restaurateur Rob Gowin and University of Texas grad William Igbokwe. Melvin is a 72-year-old white guy. Gowin is a 44-year-old gay guy. Igbokwe is a 23-year-old black guy.
Through masterful interviewing and editing, “Tomato Republic” tells the story through the eyes of the candidates (though Melvin did not cooperate) and the locals, one of whom — Douglas Allem — I recognized because he was county tax assessor in Lufkin when I lived there.
Every East Texas stereotype you harbor will be reinforced by scenes such as Cherokee County Judge Chris Davis talking about his prize-winning “butt tomato.” “Looks like a woman at Walmart in spandex, doesn’t it?” he said.
Ex-state Rep. Chuck Hopson offers this insight about his little town: “Some of the Church of Christ members don’t talk to the Baptists, and the Baptists sure don’t talk to the Catholics.” Local boutique owner Gerry Stovall, sporting a hot pink feather boa, explains Gowin’s sexual genre by saying he has “a different gen-ray.”
Gowin, a Jacksonville native with a Baylor degree in opera and chamber music, says in the movie he’d always viewed his hometown as “accepting and accommodating and kind and loving and nurturing.” During a campaign block-walking scene, Gowin, ever upbeat, seems encouraged: “I mean nobody’s gotten hurt or cut or kicked out or shot at.”
There is insight amid the yuks, such as this from a local: “When you look at the two guys who are running against Mr. Melvin this year, that tells me that some significantly good and great things are taking place in Jacksonville.”
If you plan to see “Tomato Republic,” stop reading after this paragraph. It’s better if you don’t know the outcome. There’ll be a showing at the Violet Crown theater on an October date to be determined and it will be on PBS at 9 p.m. on Oct. 30. You can buy the DVD at pandrproductions.com/tomato-republic. Now go read something else if you’re going to see “Tomato Republic” — named for the featured local produce.
If you’re not going to see it, I’ll just tell you that the old guy and the gay guy made it to a runoff. “One of the craziest questions that I heard during the whole campaign is, ‘Well, are you going to be the mayor or are you going to be the gay mayor?’ ” Gowin says after the runoff.
After watching the movie, I called Allem — who I had known in Lufkin many years ago — and asked him what would have happened back then if a black candidate and a gay candidate had run for mayor.
He laughed, eventually speculating “people back then would have looked at the lesser of two evils and probably voted for the black candidate.”