Sundance 2019: Always in Season

On the night of August 24, 2014, Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old, African American high school student, was found hanging by his neck from a swing set in a park near his home in Bladenboro, North Carolina. Earlier in the evening, he’d packed his gear for the next night’s football game and promised his mother he’d bring in the wash hanging on the line. Signs of a defensive struggle were evident on Lennon’s forearms. He seemed to have everything to live for. And yet, despite a rather substantial amount of evidence that would warrant at least a deeper investigation, Lennon’s death was quickly ruled a suicide by local police. Always in Season, Jacqueline Olive’s powerful documentary takes its time to reveal the additional evidence—much of it collected by Lennon’s brother, Pierre—but don’t get impatient. Don’t jump at that bait. Don’t ask those questions just yet. As Sherrilyn Ifill—a lawyer for the NAACP’s Legal Fund who’s interviewed in the film—commented in the post-screening discussion: “This isn’t a whodunnit. It’s the story of why a process wasn’t followed.”

Who is likely to have done it, Always in Season asserts, was recorded decades ago in postcards of and newspaper invitations to the widely accepted practice of lynching, a phenomenon—a message crime, as it’s called in the film—particularly common in the region of North Carolina where Lennon Lacy lived, which is also no stranger to Klan rallies. But, as we learn, the Klan was never the biggest perpetrator of lynching. Rather, it was ordinary white people, people whose names were as visible around town as their faces are in the images they circulated to commemorate their crimes. Olive’s approach here is to position Lennon’s death within the history of lynching, interweaving the teen’s contemporary story with those of two 20th century incidents: the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal in Florida and the murders of George and Mae Murray Dorsey and Roger and Dorothy Malcom at the Moore’s Ford Bridge near Monroe, Georgia, in 1946. In both cases, as with Lennon’s, there was plenty of evidence to investigate those crimes. An invitation to Neal’s lynching printed in the newspaper actually referred to what was intended for the evening as a “murder,” and though the Federal government investigated the Moore’s Ford incident, no charges were ever filed. The convincing common thread throughout, alongside shoddy police work, is a shameful lack of public will to face the past as well as the present.

Perhaps the most troubling moments in Olive’s film come from her footage of annual re-enactments of the Moore’s Ford lynchings, performed at the original site by white and black residents. The horror of these performances, orchestrated by a black, Atlanta-based theater director, is clearly distressing to the local, mostly black audience—and also to the viewer. It’s awful enough to make one wonder about the value of re-traumatizing the community every year, of coaching white performers to spew the hateful speech of the murderers, to ask the black performers to give their all to their screams of pain and terror. What Olive and Lennon’s mother, Claudia, manage to convince us of is that telling all the story is the only way to justice and progress, regardless of where the story may lead. This isn’t a whodunnit. It’s the story of why a process wasn’t followed. Investigators as well as communities need to follow the process, to consider all the details. This kind of telling, Claudia says, is an act of grieving. An act we all have an opportunity, an obligation to share.

See all our Sundance coverage here.

Michael Mejia
Michael Mejia
Novelist and University of Utah professor Michael Mejia is a veteran crew member of such Hollywood classics as Carnasaur, Love, Cheat, and Steal, and The Day My Parents Ran Away.

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