Thursday, June 3, 2010

Stephen Fry in America, Episode Three: Mississippi

Stephen Fry in America
Episode 3, Mississippi
The original air date for this episode on BBC One was October 26, 2008.

The "Mighty Mississippi River" is the theme of this entire episode.  Stephen follows it from the southernmost tip of the river in Louisiana to its source in Minnesota.

We start our journey in Louisiana where Stephen is in the French Quarter in New Orleans on Mardi Gras.  He is sporting a broken arm, the same break he received during a bad fall while filming another excellent documentary series Last Chance to see.  (For a top-notch recap of the entire Last Chance to See documentary please visit the "A Media Mindset" blog.)  He takes us to see Sallie Ann Glassman, a Voodoo priestess and attends a Voodoo celebration.  Glassman describes Voodoo as a mix of African traditions that came over with the slaves, European Catholicism, Native American practices and Masonry; "a gumbo of all those traditions".  He tours some of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans with Isiah.  He takes a ferry ride up the Mississippi on his way to his next stop:  the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as "Angola" or "The Farm".  It houses some 5,000 prisoners and employs 1,800 staff members.  He tours the 18,000 acre prison campus with the warden, Burl Cain.  He sees the workshop where prisoners make wheelchairs and items to assist the handicapped.  While the security might seem lax, the prisoners know that if they try and escape, if the guards don't get them, the wild hogs, alligators, snakes, bears and other panthers that roam the woods near the prison very well might.

To Natchez, Mississippi where he passes by a riverboat and several beautiful antebellum plantation homes and through to Clarksdale, Mississippi.  Clarksdale carries the motto "The Home of the Blues" because a good number of blues musicians are from Clarksdale, Mississippi.  He goes to Ground Zero, a music club owned by Morgan Freeman who explains why  the area is called the "Delta". 

From Mississippi we move into Arkansas.  Stephen canoes along the Mississippi with John Ruskie who runs courses in river craft for urban youths. 

We move 300 miles upstream to St. Louis, Missouri.  But, instead of visiting the St. Louis arch Stephen tours the homeless areas of the city and actually speaks with homeless individuals.  He visits a building known to the homeless as "The Riverfront Hilton".  While I know that there are homeless individuals that live that way by choice, I still found it incredibly shocking to hear one of the homeless men Stephen spoke with actually say they "chose to live like this".

He moves on to Iowa to the Maharishi Vedic City.  It has its own currency and constitution.  It was incorporated on July 21, 2001 and is the world's center for transcendental mediation.  He stops by the office of Dr. Fred Travis where his alpha waves are tested. 

Stephen makes a stop in Elkhart, Indiana and takes a ride in a big, red firetruck with fire Chief Mike Compton.  He actually goes into a burning building where a fire was set by the fire department for training purposes.  He describes being in the building as "just Hell".

Stephen discusses the Kent State incident while passing through the state of Ohio. 

On to Detroit, Michigan and to the Ford village located next to the Ford Motor plant and takes a ride in a Model "T" Ford.  He then moves on to Ford's most bitter rival:  General Motors.  He speaks with John Manoogian, the designer of a new model of Cadillac, at the tech center. 

Next, we travel to the state of Illinois.  Stephen gives us a 'birds eye view' of Chicago before heading off to visit Buddy Guy at a blues club.  He and Guy go on a tour of the South Side.  He moves from the blues to comedy with a visit to the Second City comedy club.  He even performs with the comedians then has a hot dog with all the trimmings with a couple of the latest stars of Second City.  One of the young comedians explains why Chicago is called "the Windy City".  He goes to a factory to see Oscars being made and even helps a bit by dipping a statue into the gold.  He looks out over the city at night from the observatory at the Sears Tower to see a breathtaking view of lights of all colors.

In the state of Wisconsin where our brave host makes comment about how cold it is and shows viewers a bottle of water he left in his cab overnight that is now frozen solid.  He goes to a farm that makes Ewe's milk cheese.  He tries his hand working the milkers.  He comments that American cheeses are "appalling".

Finally, we arrive in Minnesota and head to Minneapolis/St. Paul.  Stephen visits a Hmong community of some 40,000 immigrants from Laos/Vietnam.  He has lunch with and speaks with the Hmong Senator, Mea Moua about the Hmong culture and history.  He takes a snowmobile ride out to go ice fishing.  He catches a small fish.  One of his guides catches a much large fish, a Pike.  The Pike is returned to the lake.  As Stephen and his guide are dining upon fish Stephen feels the urge to leave the ice when he hears it cracking beneath him.

We are halfway through our journey of all fifty United States.  In the next installment we head a bit farther west into the Mountains and Plains.

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