One afternoon during the making of “Always in Season,” Jacqueline Olive was doing an interview with Claudia Lacy, the grieving mother of Lennon Lacy, a promising 17-year-old African-American football player who was found two years earlier hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina, when a train passed by. Naturally, the sound of rumbling from the rails would ruin the shot, but Lacy recalled in this moment that it wasn’t only Olive who resented the trains, but her son as well, saying he would cover his ears whenever it would pass when he was a child and Olive kept the camera rolling.
“The thing that really surprised me most when I met with [Claudia] about filming with her is that she’s certainly strong and she’s certainly determined to find out what happened to her son, but she’s also very open, which means she’s processing her emotions deeply,” says Olive. “A lot of the anger that she felt early on is no longer present, but that moment when she is talking about Lennon and how he responded to the train was actually a way to bring him back to the surface and when she squints her eyes, you can see the anger that she doesn’t necessarily articulate [verbally].”
It’s the kind of profoundly illustrative moment every documentary filmmaker hopes for, although “Always in Season” is a film no one would ever hope to have to make, particularly in the way it came about for Olive, who was already well on her way to uncovering the largely hidden history of lynching in America when reports of Lacy’s murder firmly set the film in the present rather than in the past. This came as no surprise to the first-time filmmaker who was already well-aware that the horrific hate crimes that became popular after the Civil War, to the extent that entire communities would gather around and pose for pictures with the desecrated corpses of men they just murdered as if they were at an amusement park, had never really gone away, at least in memory for the families of the victims, yet it still is likely to come as a shock for anyone watching her eye-opening new film, which has been in the works for the better part of a decade.
Just as reliably as the trains keep running through Bladenboro connecting contemporary times to days gone by, Olive vividly demonstrates how communities that have had a lynching take place in their history can never fully reconcile its implications, whether in the immediate aftermath as in the case of Lacy or in the decades after the unthinkable has occurred as it stands in Monroe, Georgia where there’s an annual reenactment of the day in 1946 when Roger Malcom, his wife, his sister Mae Murray Dorsey and her husband were dragged from their car and killed. While the subject matter is difficult for both those on-screen and off, “Always in Season” becomes extraordinarily moving when it shows the importance of confronting the ugliest parts of our shared experience to pave the way towards breaking the cycle and getting past the discomfort to open up a conversation. It was a great privilege to speak to Olive on the eve of the film’s theatrical release across the country, following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, on how much thought she put into structuring the film to facilitate those discussions, having to adjust to making a film that changed tenses on her so radically and ensuring that this part of American history doesn’t get swept under the rug.
How did you get interested in this?
I am from Mississippi and when I moved back home for a few years in the early 2000s, I saw an exhibit “Without Sanctuary,” of lynching photography in America — a lot of the images that you see in the film of men, women and children posing with the bodies of lynching victims that just really stuck with me. The pictures compelled me to know about who they were, how they came to the point of such brutality and I spent time researching this story and just came to find out what it must’ve been like for them for folks in their community to turn on them in that way. I was thinking about making my first feature and I spent two years researching and developing a project before I began shooting, and [the first] six months I was just looking at the victims. But then I started to pay attention to the spectators in the images and started to realize their faces looked like the faces of my friends and neighbors and people I knew, so I started to want to understand more about how they showed up in the story. When I found that there were people on the ground doing work for justice and reconciliation, I realized that was my in for filming.
Is it true you were already well into filming when you found out about Lennon’s murder?
Yeah, I had already been filming for four or five years…three in Monroe, Georgia with the reenactors looking at the work they were doing to shed light on the lynching of the two couples – the Malcoms and the Dorseys in 1946 and the reenactment happens on the anniversary of that lynching, which is July 20th. I had [planned] to wrap up filming around that time and thought that I was done and moving into the edit, but less a month later, Lennon’s death was publicized in the media. I certainly knew similar hangings had happened over the seven years I had moved to Mississippi in between 1998 and 2005 — there were four or five similar cases of usually young black men found hanging by their own belts and those cases were quickly or eventually dismissed. But what really drew me to the story is that my son was 17, the same age as Lennon Lacy when it happened, so it was just a point at which I had been spending all of these years looking at what people were doing around historic lynchings, the impact that’s still going on in those communities and was just really drawn to the parallels of what was going on in Bladenboro.
Was it any different talking to people in communities where lynchings were part of history, but at least a generation removed, versus a place where like Bladenboro where it just happened?
The interesting thing is that when I began filming, very few people were talking about lynching. I began filming in 2010, so this was before Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, and most of the country wasn’t looking at racial violence past or present. Then when I started to film in communities where lynching happened around the country – most of them aren’t featured in the film — but it did not feel like a distant past. It felt very immediate. Emotions around the lynchings, around the impact on families and on people that were not family members of the victims, but were connected were still really very fresh. Even when I was filming around the ‘30s lynching, there wasn’t a lot of distance emotionally when people had been affected by the lynching, and in Bladenboro, the story was instantly more immediate because the hanging was in 2014. The community still is reverberating from that kind of trauma, particularly because they don’t have many answers about what happened.
Was it difficult to collect so much footage from communities before learning of Lennon Lacy and make the decision to discard it in service of the story that was the best to tell?
It was the biggest challenge — how do we bring all of these story elements together because it was important for me early on that this isn’t a film about a single community because I wanted people to understand the scope of the terrorism that this happened across the country in every state before, even when in Monroe where they do the reenactments, it is the only place in the world in my research where they do a lynching reenactment, and [not make] that feel like an oddity. When I talk to my editors, they won’t say, but we had probably at least a thousand hours of footage and no one will commit to a number. [laughs] But we filmed over eight years and we needed to then condense it into a really strong and tight 90 minutes, so up until probably the last three months of the edit, there were four main communities I was looking at and I just realized that if I stripped everything back to what the reenactors were doing in Monroe and what folks like Claudia Lacy and other folks in Bladenboro were facing, they spoke to each other much more clearly.
Then once we understood that those two storylines really worked well together, I decided to bring back in Claude Neal’s story in Marianna, Florida, so just as people get comfortable with the level of terrorism, just when you feel you’re knowing the story, there’s a deeper level of terrorism [you feel with Neal’s story]. Also, the research around lynching is relatively new, so I put together an advisory board of the top scholars on lynching, and among them is E.M. Beck and Stewart Tolnay, who are really responsible for the numbers that we have — the nearly 5000 lynchings over a century, but that research only came about during the ‘80s and ‘90s, so what we know about the level of terrorism of lynching is still new and they believe the numbers are probably closer to three times as many lynchings because the number of undocumented cases and the anonymous bodies that have never been identified. Sowe really don’t know how deep the terrorism lies and the distance of time also means we can’t fully understand what people felt and what they went through, so it was important to make sure that people never really felt comfortable with the full depths of the terrorism.
One of the most interesting moments in the film to me is the reenactment of the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Monroe since as an audience member, you don’t let us off the hook —you don’t immediately say it’s a reenactment, so the editing makes it seem like you could be bearing witness to a lynching in progress. Was it interesting to find those moments where you could give audiences that uneasy feeling?
Yeah, from the very beginning I knew all along that I wanted the film to feel very experiential, that people felt what the terror was like for people who were like the Malcolms and the Dorseys, driven into an ambush and were lynched and that in addition to the social climate of dehumanization that made these lynchings possible, it was really important to feel that we have a personal stake in understanding the story. So Don Burnier, the lead editor and co-writer with me on the project, and I worked for months on the structure of the film and once we did, it was really exciting for a lot of the elements to fall into place. Don and I worked on that scene [in particular] to help bring people into that moment and [subsequently] that sequence with a great deal of care, so there are times where people are extremely uncomfortable and then there are moments in which people can release that anxiety in order to be present with the film. There was very much a balance of making sure that we facilitated a journey through the narrative in a way that people could still be present, yet a film about lynching and the terrorism and brutality should never fully be comfortable.
What’s it been like getting this film out into the world?
It’s been incredibly fulfilling. My goal with the film from the beginning, before I actually even knew fully what the film was about, was for it to set up conversations that we need to unpack this history, to look at how we can look at the victims and how we can look to repair. Every community doesn’t need to do a reenactment as a form of repair, but there are things that we can do both large and small that are helpful to bring healing into the community. Since Sundance, we have had 40 festivals where the film has screened and we have used the Q & As as an opportunity to begin the dialogue that’s really needed and right now as we release the film around the country, it’s really about building those relationships so we can bring the film back to those cities for deep dives — three to four-hour conversations in which we start to unpack this history and build coalitions to work towards justice and reconciliation — so getting the film out into the world in that way is really exciting.