Sometimes, the best films are the films that exist underneath the surface.
They aren't always well known. They don't always win a slew of awards. They don't always play in the multiplexes and you don't always hear about them come awards season. Heck, sometimes they're not even perfect films.
Perfection is often overrated.
The Smell of Money is such a film, an under-the-radar film that may not be a household name yet it tells an important story and it tells that story well. Directed by Shawn Bannon and written by Jamie Berger, The Smell of Money has attracted support from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Sen. Cory Booker, and a host of others. Yet, it exists for the most part far away from even the fringes of the Hollywood experience. The film is, in fact, set in North Carolina amidst the hog farms and cesspools of a rural community negatively impacted, devastated really, by the world's largest pork company.
Smithfield, because you should know.
The Smell of Money picked up a handful of awards along its festival journey at fests like Sarasota Film Festival (Best Doc Feature), Bushwick Film Festival (Best Doc Feature), and Sidewalk Film Festival (Best Life & Liberty Film) among others. The Smell of Money is a social justice film through and through, a film that tackles environmenttal racism in a "David vs. Goliath" story that is equal parts enraging and engaging.
It seems appropriate that after the film's successful festival run that it's found a distribution home with The Unreasnble, a new kid on the block distributor comprised of Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning filmmakers.
What's refreshing about The Smell of Money is that there's no narrative manipulation here. Instead, simple storytelling is the law of the land with this being a film that is for the most part low-key and devoid of the usual gimmicky graphics and emotional histrionics. The two key characters in the film, Elsie Herring and Rene Miller, are compelling without effort and their stories are tragic yet they avoid ever reaching for the pity. Instead, theirs becomes a story of perseverance, resilience, and fierce determination against seemingly impossible odds. Sen. Cory Booker is here, always a welcome presence, and the film's other personalities add vibrance and wisdom throughout the 84-minute feature doc.
Surprisingly subtly, The Smell of Money makes us question the world in which we love and the creature comforts that we've come to expect. It makes us question the prevalent racism in corporate decisions that seem to so often impact rural America, though so often they do so with unwavering authority and without being questioned. It makes us question the simple decisions that we make and the costs of those decisions.
I mean, c'mon. Bacon. Life is better with bacon, but at what price? What price are we willing to pay? What price are we willing to exact on others? I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian and have no intention of ever being one, however, The Smell of Money forces me to at least think about the impact of my decisions. In this case, it's about the hogs. Let's be honest, an awful lot of folks look at hogs and see a slovenly little creature and we don't place a whole lot of value on them. This film intensely tackles the overwhelming communal impact of what comes down to being hog waste, millions of gallons of fecal matter dumped into feces before, eventually, being liquified and sprayed into the air.
Into the air. In a community. Around homes. Think about it. It's jarring to think about and it's jarring to realize that it's simply common practice. The Smell of Money makes us realize that these families living adjacent to these hog farms are losing the value of their properties, their livelihood, their well-being, and so much more. When questioned, The Smell of Money tells us, these corporate giants fight back with everything they've got.
It turns out they've got a lot.
But still, these folks fight.
The Smell of Money is a richly human and emotionally honest film that finds its power in its truth and in the straightforward testimony of the residents who've fought back and who've tackled a giant. You know that Bannon and Berger have done something right to attract support from the likes of Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, and executive producer Kate Mara among others. There's no messing around here - simply straightforward storytelling about environmental racism and unfathomable injustice.
So yeah, The Smell of Money isn't likely to be mentioned much this awards season and yet it's a vital and important film that deserves our attention and deserves our engagement. The Smell of Money is currently in limited theatrical release and also available On Demand from Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and Youtube.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic