Among the many disturbing elements of the story Jacqueline Olive illustrates so well in “Always in Season” is just how much visual evidence she has at her disposal to recount the history of lynching in America. There’s no shortage of photos of proud white crowds standing behind the hanging bodies of African-Americans that have been beaten to a pulp or burned, smiling as if gathering for a party. Olive resists getting too graphic in conveying the particulars, but for these desensitized times, it’s the smiling that’s stomach-churning enough and the notion that these lynchings could bring out crowds of thousands, approvingly covered in the local paper and no one would do anything about it.
History has a way of repeating itself and though few in Bladenboro, North Carolina want to discuss it, Olive uses the past as corroborating evidence to affirm the 2014 death of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old African-American with plenty to live for, was a murder rather than a suicide, though she has plenty of other convincing proof to come to a conclusion that the local authorities did not. Starting out with a horrific call to 911 dispatchers describing how Lacy was found strangled to death on a swing set, Olive circulates around Bladenboro to find the African-American community eager to talk while the white community generally suggests putting the recent incident behind them, but the filmmaker then goes about showing how the past is still very much a part of the present in North Carolina as well as venturing to Monroe, Georgia where residents insist on reenacting the 1946 Moore’s Ford Bridge lynching as an ongoing act of healing and Marianna, Florida, where in 1934, Claude Neal was publicly executed by a mob in gruesome fashion after being accused of the rape of a white woman.
Even if Olive is limited to newspaper clippings in some cases, there’s a fluidity and vibrancy to “Always in Season” that never lets it escape the current moment as it connects the dots and while many in the film point out, these murders were performative acts, openly asserting white supremacy to the point where it becomes normalized, consigning it to the dustbin of history has made the current times potentially even more dangerous when people’s refusal to believe lynching could happen now can help provide cover to racists thugs when not even considering it as a possibility. Such is the case with Lacy, of who it is assumed would never be subject to a hate crime in a community that is described as having “an Andy Griffith feel,” by a docent at the Bladenboro Historical Society, and yet “Always in Season” conducts an investigation that it appears law enforcement couldn’t be bothered with and uncovers both a compelling motive and suspects.
If there is a hiccup in the film, it’s the choice to hold back a key detail about Lacy until it nears the end for dramatic effect, but Olive has done such a strong job at establishing historical precedent that it simply becomes undeniable as part of a pattern that needs to be broken. Although these types of films can feel frustrating in offering only the hope of opening up a conversation, “Always in Season” feels undeniable in bringing lynching back into the public consciousness, doing so sensitively enough to elude the instant repulsion that the subject may bring up and bring out the humanity of those so readily deprived of it, whether in being treated so inhumanely in an act of violence or as such incidents are threatened to be unacknowledged. Olive’s powerful feature debut makes that impossible.
“Always in Season” will screen at Sundance on January 27th at 9 am at the Temple Theatre in Park City, January 28th at 3 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room, January 29th at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema in Salt Lake City, January 30th at 12:30 pm at the Redstone Cinema 1 in Park City and February 2nd at noon at the Temple Theatre in Park City.