Recreating a Lynching, Part II



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Kelly Baker

My previous post on Screening a Lynching focused on the cinematic recreations of the Leo Frank Trial and subsequent lynching. This is my very tardy follow up post, and I promise no more about Leo Frank from me until at least next year.

The newest attempt to narrate this sensational trial and its aftermath is The People Vs. Leo Frank (2009), which based largely on Steve Oney's book, And the Dead Shall Rise:The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (2003). The docudrama relies on dialogue from the historical record as well as interviews with scholars, including Leonard Dinnerstein who has his own book on the trial and lynching, as well as descendants of those involved in this historical event. The People Vs. Leo Frank takes the position that Frank was obviously innocent and documents Frank's innocence with detailed accounts on the crime scene and trial. What I like about this rendition is its attempt to situate both the trial and the lynching in place, period and culture. The early moments of the docudrama highlight Atlanta's growth as a city, the place of the Jewish population in the Southern city and the growing concern over Jewish immigrants by 1913. What I was not as interested in was the crime show feel of the whole film. The film maker spent much time on excrement, blood stains, and questionable testimony. These, I guess, make for good entertainment for the popular audience, but in many ways, The People rehashes previous renderings of the case. For instance, the film strongly suggests that Jim Conley, the black janitor, was responsible for the murder of Mary Phagan, which might be true.

There were two things that were particularly striking to me about this docudrama. First, there was not enough attention to the problem of anti-Semitism. The documentary actually seems to suggest that anti-Semitism was not a real presence in American culture before the lynching, which is wholly untrue. One of the most fascinating parts of the docudrama involves how Frank's attorneys tried to use black prejudice to combat the religious prejudice that their client faced. Moreover, the prosecutor Dorsey argued that the defense "injected religious prejudice" in the trial because he obviously believed that he was not pandering to Jewish stereotypes. What The People successfully visualizes is the clearly anti-Semitic atmosphere of Atlanta, and the avid belief of Frank's attorneys and supporters that a white (Jewish) man, Frank, would not be convicted by the words of a black man, Conley. They were clearly wrong. I was initially skeptical of the film maker's use of re-enactment, but to see as well as hear Conley's testimony made it clear by the jury chose to believe him. His story was debauchery, and the jury and the larger Atlanta wanted to believe that Frank was a sexual pervert who violated vulnerable young white women.

Second, the women of the trial and the lynching are merely placeholders. My frustration is not simply directed at this film on this point, however. Frank's wife, Lucille, instead of being an active and ardent supporter of her husband, becomes a good looking woman who tenderly touches Frank's hand, sits quietly in the courtroom and writes him poetic love letters. This does not represent the actual Lucille, who was quite vocal about her husband's innocence. She is simply a silent sufferer through out. Not surprisingly, Mary Phagan is the poor, wretched victim. She appears in Frank's office to ask for her pay in her best clothes for the Confederate memorial parade. She's blonde and polite, and she gently asks Frank if there will be more work for her soon. The next time Phagan appears in the docudrama, she's dead. Luckily, there is some commentary from scholars about the place of young women in factories in the South and the gender and class conflict that arises, but visually this piece of the story is missing. Phagan becomes a placeholder and warning for young white women. Her sweet persona is much more important than her actual personhood. Nancy MacLean writes effectively about the class and gender impetus for the lynching of Leo Frank, and I would have liked to see some of her insight here. For a film about a lynching in a which the death of a young woman is central, women are relegated to silent second tier characters while the voices and actions of men become the leading narrative. Granted, the film is about Frank, but I would really like to see someone tackle the implications of the visual culture of Mary Phagan and her hagiography. The film even recreates the stream of young women who testified against Frank, but we don't hear much of their voices. Instead, their appearances and purported innocence is what we see on screen, and I would have liked more reflection on the inaccuracies of the their testimony as well as how these young women became the voice of Mary Phagan.

My final point on The People Vs. Leo Frank (and Leo Frank for awhile) is the actual visualization of the lynching in the docudrama. This recreation shows the level of planning and strategy in the capture and subsequent lynching of Frank. Frank was removed from prison without a lock broken or a shot fired. The film estimated that it took ten minutes to remove this famous prison from his prison. His captors drove him to Marietta, Phagan's hometown. The lynch party was not chaotic but solemn. Visually, the lynching scene focuses on Frank's feet. Gradually, the viewer sees Frank's form hanging from a tree with crowds gathering slowly. Then, the film uses actual photographs of the lynching to juxtapose with the reenactment. Over 15,000 people passed by Frank's body at an Atlanta funeral home. The rope was cut into small sections and sold.

One of the interesting questions that emerges at the end of the film is how could elite, educated people commit this lynching. The assumption, I guess, is that these types of people would not be involved in brutality. Instead of dodging this question, descendants of the lynchers discuss this very point matter of factly. Those that planned and committed the lynching envisioned themselves as bearers of the law and justice. Phagan was murdered, and her gruesome murder needed to be avenged by another equally gruesome death. In MacLean's article, she quotes a minister who notes that this lynching (this sacrifice) is somehow better because the victim was Jewish and white. It almost made it seem like Phagan's death was vindicated by the lynching, but yet she remained just a banner for a cause not her own person. Phagan remained a victim, and Frank became a victim. And unfortunately, visualizing these events does not necessarily bring clarity to this murky historical event. Recreating a lynching might present the peculiar trial to a modern audience but it does not explain the lasting interest in a trial about the murder of a young white women supposedly by a white man. I, sometimes, wonder if the interest in this case doesn't have to with the failure of the privilege of whiteness in this historical moment. In the repeated disbelief that Frank was convicted by the testimony of a black man, I see glimmers of concern. Maybe I am reading too much into the trial and its visualizations, but again, I begin to wonder.

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