Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television

By Carr, Steven Alan | American Jewish History, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television


Carr, Steven Alan, American Jewish History


Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television. By Matthew H. Bernstein. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2009. xv + 332 pp.

Bernstein's book compares how media have represented the 1913 trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank outside of Marietta, Georgia, in 1915. Comprising two sections, the book first covers film, then television. Not a historical examination of the case itself, the work analyzes popular memory of the case. Historical representation of it has proven both flexible and durable enough in dramatization to speak to any number of modern-day controversies throughout the twentieth century. Had clarity and consensus emerged from this iteration of America's already shameful legacy of lynching, distinguishing between actuality and dramatization would have posed enough challenges. However, certain ambiguities further clouded by unresolved and fractured politics of class, race, and gender perpetuate the Leo Frank case as cultural lightning rod. At the very least, popular attention devoted to the lynching of a single white man--a Jew, at that--seems striking when compared to the 2,500 lynchings of African-Americans that took place between 1880 and 1930, a number Bernstein notes is roughly equivalent to a weekly occurrence over a fifty year period.

Initially recapping known facts, Bernstein refers readers to Leonard Dinnerstein's classic The Leo Frank Case (1968) and Steve Oney's And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (2003) but wisely recounts the basic chronology. Leo Frank supervised the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Georgia. A night watchman found an employee, thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan--this was before child labor laws--beaten and strangled. A month-long trial in August sentenced Frank to death, based largely on testimony from Jim Conley, an African American with a criminal record. Meanwhile, publisher Tom Watson waged an antisemitic tirade against Frank in the press. After a jury sentenced Frank to hang, Georgia governor John M. Slaton commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. On August 16, 1915, a mob abducted and lynched Frank with the help of sheriff's deputies, businessmen, and civic leaders.

Nearly 100 years later, the varied aspects of the case, including race, racism, sexuality, ethnicity, black-Jewish relations, press sensationalism, post-Confederate nationalism, and child labor, are enough to make one's head spin. As the book shows, these ambiguous and unsettling details drew filmmakers to the case. For African American filmmaker and author Oscar Micheaux, the subject became a lifelong inspiration for numerous films and novels. If the case was this influential, Micheaux film scholars should reappraise the director's work, particularly since Bernstein persuasively argues that audiences at the time immediately recognized allusions to the case. In offering detailed analyses of Micheaux's films as well as the additional film They Won't Forget (Warner Bros., 1937), Bernstein shows how closely their narratives paralleled actual trial testimony yet crucially diverged from certain events. While these films implicitly invoke the case without mentioning antisemitism, Bernstein shows how Frank's lynching was key to the films' reception.

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