Screening a Lynching: the Leo Frank Case on Film and Television
By Matthew H. Bernstein. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, February 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0820327525, $69.95; paper: ISBN 978-0820332390, $24.95. 400 pages.
Review by Nathan G. Tipton, University of Memphis
The very concept of lynching provokes in most people a profound sense of discomfort combined with an almost morbid fascination, a dualism that becomes further problematized when the visual elements of lynchings are brought to the fore. Matthew Bernstein’s book Screening a Lynching: the Leo Frank Case on Film and Television confronts this dualism through a thorough, cogent review of the visual and historical record surrounding the especially troublesome lynching of Leo Frank. Taking his cue from historian Hayden White and film history scholar Dudley Andrew, Bernstein explains that filmmakers advance interpretations of historical events not merely to tell a tale, but also to show how and why historical events unfolded as they did. In fact, while Screening a Lynching often reads more as a history book than a film criticism text, the sensational events and unanswered questions surrounding the Leo Frank/Mary Phagan case provide Bernstein with fitting examples for how and why filmmakers consider it irresistible material for dramatic, narrative films.
Indeed, the Leo Frank case has all the trappings of a perfectly rendered murder mystery. On the night following Confederate Memorial Day, April 26, 1913, Frank, a Jewish pencil factory supervisor in Atlanta, Georgia, was accused of strangling 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan. Frank, who was originally from Brooklyn, New York, endured a merciless “rush to convict” by overzealous Fulton County police and a rapacious Atlanta press corps that branded him, among other things, a greedy Yankee carpetbagger and a sexual pervert who allegedly molested and murdered Phagan after she, widely portrayed as an innocent flower of Southern girlhood, resisted Frank’s advances. Frank’s legal fate was ultimately sealed—in an ironic twist given the trial’s Southern setting and prevailing racial conventions—by the perjured testimony of black factory janitor Jim Conley, and Frank received a death sentence. However, this sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in July 1915 by Georgia governor John M. Slaton, who, on reviewing details of the case, decided that grounds for reasonable doubt existed as to Frank’s guilt. An incensed public reacted swiftly, and the ensuing backlash effectively ended Slaton’s political career while setting in motion events that would ultimately lead to Frank’s grisly death on August 16, 1915. Frank was abducted from his prison cell at Milledgeville State Prison by twenty-five “Knights of Mary Phagan” who drove him to Marietta, Georgia (Mary Phagan’s birthplace) and lynched him.
Bernstein usefully deploys these historical details as a contextual jumping-off point for his discussions of four filmic treatments of the Frank-Phagan saga. These treatments include two feature films, Oscar Micheaux’s Murder in Harlem (1936) and Mervyn LeRoy’s They Won’t Forget (1937), and two television programs, the NBC documentary Profiles in Courage: John B. Slaton and the 1988 NBC miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan. With each chapter, Bernstein shows how each filmmaker wrestled with, and often flouted, the historical record surrounding the infamous case.
For the most part, Bernstein’s filmic discussions generally shine. His explications of the two television shows, for example, show how television producers valued the foregrounding of historical accuracy and verisimilitude over portraying the more sensationalized aspects of the case. Bernstein’s filmic interpretations, however, clearly comprise the strongest critical portions of the book, with his reading of the 1937 “Hollywood Message Movie” They Won’t Forget providing a narrative center to the text. The chapter on They Won’t Forget explores how noted filmmaker Mervyn LeRoy chose to adapt and transform a historical atrocity into what Bernstein calls “a morally acceptable, sellable narrative” for the screen (62). This section is particularly compelling due in large part to Bernstein’s exploration of the arduous, almost torturous, process LeRoy and his writers underwent in order to bring They Won’t Forget to fruition. Bernstein notes that even before film production began, Joseph Breen and the Production Code Administration (PCA) unambiguously declared that the film could not be made at all because the script violated so many provisions of the Production Code, including police brutality, excessive drinking, and the suggestion of mob violence and a lynching.
Breen’s objections seem utterly absurd given that They Won’t Forget was clearly influenced by the Frank-Phagan case. However, Bernstein wisely defers commenting on the PCA’s actions in favor of conveying LeRoy’s dogged conviction to tell the story as accurately as possible while also conforming to, and working within, the PCA’s strict guidelines. This conviction is brilliantly illustrated by how LeRoy ingeniously, if indirectly, depicted the lynching of “Robert Hale” (the cinematic stand-in for Leo Frank) through the use of a mailbag which is snatched up by an oncoming train. Bernstein explains that the mailbag symbolically and imagistically represented a lynching, providing a metonymic displacement of screen violence that was both imaginative and shrewd, while also falling well within the PCA Code’s bounds of good taste.
While Bernstein’s incisive reading of They Won’t Forget is quite successful, his discussion of Oscar Micheaux’s Murder in Harlem (1936), is the book’s weakest chapter. Although Murder in Harlem was released only one year before They Won’t Forget, Micheaux’s film is marred by conflicting storylines that haphazardly incorporate elements of the Frank case, poor cinematography, and uniformly bad acting. Murder in Harlem also curiously, if conspicuously, avoids any mention of lynching, unlike the other three films discussed by Bernstein. From an historical standpoint, the inclusion of Murder in Harlem is understandable given Micheaux’s position as an innovative early black filmmaker working in an overwhelming white industry. Nevertheless, Murder in Harlem provides at best a mere tangential connection to the Frank case, making it a problematic entry into an otherwise illuminating compendium of film studies. As well, it seems almost ironic that of the four films included in Screening a Lynching, Micheaux’s film is the only one still in circulation. Thus, while Bernstein offers a wonderfully instructive text on a historically vexing and fascinating case, Screening a Lynching is difficult to fully appreciate without having access to the films that are discussed within its pages.