Recreating a Lynching, Part I

Kelly Baker

In Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, Matthew Bernstein, a professor of Film Studies at Emory, examines the retelling of the Leo Frank trial (1913) and Frank’s subsequent lynching (1915) in film and on television. (For a quick primer on the Leo Frank trial and lynching, see "Marietta's Shame" and "The Trial of Leo Frank"). Like many others, Bernstein writes about the lasting interest in the trial as well as documents the difference between historical record and dramatic renderings of the story. The fascinating book begins with a discussion of this particular lynching. Frank, after all, was white and Jewish, and the usual victims of lynching were African American men. It still befuddles some that Frank became a victim of such a horrific crime. Speculation about the case and what actually happened still runs rampant with popular claims now that Jim Conley, a janitor at the pencil company where Phagan worked and Frank managed, as the responsible party. (However, the grandniece of Mary Phagan previously made claims that Frank was the murderer).

For Bernstein and other scholars of this particular case, Frank’s fate was sealed because of his religion not because of class or geographic location. Moreover, Bernstein categorizes the “obsession” with this historical event as overwhelming considering the other events of the time period. Bernstein rather than rehashing the case for analysis instead looks at artistic representations of the trial to see how the Frank trial was perceived in both cinema/television and popular culture. The recreations illuminate why trial has such lasting quality. Why were audiences from the 1920s to the 1980s (and now 2009) interested in the lynching of a Northern Jew? What does this story highlight about the American South? Or what does it suggest about the nature of the South that still holds appeal/disgust? Screening answers these questions and provides illuminating discussion of how history is portrayed and the consequences and advantages of these portrayals. Additionally, Bernstein meticulously points about inaccuracies in recreations as well as reasons for creative license taken with the story.

The Frank trial’s allure comes from the sensationalism as well as the ability for the story to be represented so well visually. Bernstein writes:

It is a murder mystery, a detective story, and a tale of cynical and sensational journalism.It has courtroom drama and features an extraordinary sacrifice by a politician. It involves a devoted married couple torn apart by external events. It features the perturbing qualities and multiple ironies of a “wrong man” story…(21).

The Frank trial appeals especially to modern audiences who watch CSI: and its many competitors with something akin to devotion. More importantly, Bernstein’s work questions the dichotomy placed between history and film. Historians like to dismiss the docudrama, but Bernstein pushes historians to realize that are so different from their film counterparts. Rather historians and “visual storytellers” both shape the historical record to present their tales, and this shaping includes representation and elaboration. What I find most interesting about this discussion is Bernstein’s claim that film is able to take “idealized facts of the case” make them authoritative. This would not fly in published accounts but gives the film “greater power and resonance than one based on a fictional work” (23).

The four recreations of case highlight the trauma of the event in an attempt at comprehension, and each tells a different version of the story. For instance, Bernstein notes that Frank’s Jewishness does not appear in either of the films but appear in the television versions. In addition, the story becomes more complete as directors had more access to historical resources. Jim Conley’s role in the trial moves from witness to the actual guilty party of the rape and murder of Mary Phagan that The People Vs. Leo Frank (2009), not included in Bernstein’s work, suggests very strongly. In the early 1960s, the portrayal of Governor John Slaton suggests that he was a selfless white hero, who braved the angry mob calling for Frank’s death. The portrayal of Southerners in these visual retellings sometimes turns to caricature and other times downplay sectionalism all together.

Two things in particular from Bernstein’s work are of interest to our readers. First is the troublesome issue of how to portray anti-Semitism. Some of visualizations ignore the issue entirely. In Profiles of Courage (1964), an episode devoted to Governor Slaton downplayed anti-Semitism as the cause of the lynching but this rendition was one of the first to even present anti-Semitism at all. Instead, the episode highlighted demagoguery of Tom Watson who created “phobias” in the Southern populace. What is striking here is the inaccuracy with the historical record because Watson’s sentiments about the trial highlighted his virulent anti-Semitism. Interestingly, The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988) toned down Watson so that the miniseries was not overwhelming about prejudice against Leo Frank as a Jew. Anti-semitism appears in the miniseries in trial scenes. The docudramas presented by Bernstein illuminated the unease at how to portray the trial and lynching with prejudice as the basis. Thus, playing down prejudice to make audiences more comfortable was acceptable. Yet highlighting the shocking fact that Jim Conley, an African American man, was believed over Frank, a white man, seems to be central for all the recreations. Perhaps, Frank’s Jewishness gets in the way of retelling by complicating presentations of race and ethnicity. It might just be easier to suggest that Frank was white, and only present his Jewishness as religious affiliation.

Second, the focus on how to recreate a lynching and discuss such violence is also central to Bernstein’s book. Visualizing a lynching proved difficult for the films and television programs. To present the trial, directors also had to present a lynching. Thus, they provided glimpses of the act and Profiles showed a picture of Frank’s body, though The Murder of Mary Phagan recreated the whole act. Moreover, audiences might not be able to stomach the recreation. Yet audiences might like to imagine the chaos and spontaneity of a lynching rather than to see the planning and organization by firmly middle class leaders of Georgia communities. If we only see Frank hanging, we are somehow able to avoid thinking about the careful precision of his demise. The Murder of Mary Phagan illuminates the precision, which, I think, enhances the brutality. This miniseries, however, shows a much smaller crowd that gathered to see Frank’s body. People watched and “consumed” lynchings, and the death of Frank was no different. For those interested in the Frank trial or simply interested in how film renders history, Bernstein’s book is a worthy read.

Next week, I’ll continue the discussion of Leo Frank while reviewing the new docudrama, The People Vs. Leo Frank.


Phil said…
Great post, Kelly. Bernsetin's book sounds interesting, and gives much food for thought in terms of how lyching in American history is depicted, remembered, etc.

I've been thinking a lot lately about centennials and commemorations (mostly related to the centennial of the NAACP this year). It will be interesting to visit these questions about Leo Frank in 2013/2015. The centennials of the race riots of 1917 and 1919 also come to mind in terms of depictions, commemorations, and memory.