NASCAR stock car racing is arguably the fastest growing and most popular spectator sport in America. Racing folklore holds that stock car racing was born from bootleggers running moonshine, but the sport came of age amidst the tobacco fields of North Carolina. In fact, for decades, racing champions such as Petty, Waltrip, Gordon and Earnhardt competed in the Winston Cup Series, sponsored by Winston cigarettes. Their sport’s version of the Stanley Cup or the Lombardi Trophy was even known as The Winston Cup.

Yet, as the 2004 racing season dawned, the familiar red and white Winston logo was gone. The Chase is now for the Nextel Cup, and even past Winston Cup champions have had their history rewritten for them, as they are now known officially as former “Nextel Cup Champions,” even though the only people who owned cell phones back when Richard Petty was the King were Captain Kirk and the rest of his Starship Enterprise crew on TV.

Corporate revisionism and sponsorship changes in sports are nothing new, (see Enron Field/Minute Maid Park in Houston, for example), but there’s more going on here than a simple logo switch. Finally, at long last, tobacco has become so anathema, so politically incorrect, that it’s no longer even acceptable, let alone welcome, at the very former fringe sport it helped turn into a nationally popular major league.

Yet, tobacco doesn’t grow itself, and that’s where director Cynthia Hill’s open-minded, yet clear-headed documentary “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family” comes in. Hill’s low-key exploration of the southeastern states’ tobacco country, introduces us to a handful of aging tobacco farmers and the impact our increasingly smoke-free society has had on their lives, as well as the economic impact on the communities in which they live. Chief among these are Melvin Croom, who transitions, over the course of the film’s five years, from farming his 90 acres of tobacco and supplementing that ever-dwindling income with his second job working at a funeral home, to facing the reality of retirement.

Willie Marvin Allen represents the last of the old black sharecroppers. He, too, has to give up his tiny 5 acres of land and the rundown wooden shack with no running water he called home, when health issues force him to move in with his daughter.

Finally, there’s Ernie Averett, a prodigal son of sorts who’s stubbornly returned to the family farm and runs for County Commissioner in hopes that his election will help preserve the farmer’s way of life for him to pass on to his newborn son.

It would have been very easy for Hill to romanticize these men, and to serve as an apologist for the tobacco industry, especially as she herself grew up on a tobacco farm. On the other hand, it would have been nearly as easy — and far more popular — to stridently demonize that same industry and everyone who’s participated in it.

Instead, although she must have felt a bit like a defense attorney defending a loathed mass murder everyone knows is guilty, she paints a remarkably well-balanced portrait of a slice of Americana that’s slowly fading away, warts and all. (And when one of these farmers says, as Melvin does, that they’re part of a “dying breed,” there’s more than a touch of irony involved, given the nature of the crop they grow.)

“Tobacco Money Feeds My Family” does the best job it can at humanizing those who make their living growing a legal, if lethal crop. It also hits all the tobacco industry’s talking points, noting with an appropriately defensive tone, that smokers will continue to smoke even if American farmers stop growing tobacco, and pointing out that growing other things ain’t exactly that profitable either these days.

Yet, the most ironic point in a film full of melancholy ironies comes near the end, as Hill shows us the condo where she now lives; a complex of renovated and gentrified old tobacco warehouses in Durham…that are now smoke-free.

It would seem that NASCAR has gone smokeless for a reason.

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