Academic journal article Shofar

The Return of the Repressed: Leo Frank through the Eyes of Oscar Micheaux

Academic journal article Shofar

The Return of the Repressed: Leo Frank through the Eyes of Oscar Micheaux

Article excerpt

This article examines how pioneer African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, in his 1935 film Murder in Harlem, radically altered the traditional understanding of the 1913 murder of Mary Phagan and the ensuant trial, conviction, and lynching of Leo Frank. By rejecting the accepted -- racist -- preconceptions of the case, and by using the genre of the detective story to retell, and reexamine, this material, Micheaux made a unique and vital contribution to how issues of racism as well as antisemitism affected not only the Leo Frank trial but the literature surrounding it as well.

I.

The 1913 murder of Mary Phagan in Atlanta and the trial, conviction, and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank for that crime have been a centerpiece of American social history for nearly a century. Not only have the crime and trial remained central to narratives of U.S. social injustice and mob rule, but they have served as a primary marker for antisemitic sentiment and action in American culture. The Phagan murder and Frank lynching have been recounted numerous times in American popular culture -- songs, novels, films, a made-for-television movie, stage plays, and even musicals.(1) Each of these, to varying degrees, reflects the political tenor and social mores of its time. Almost all of the cultural artifacts -- the early "folk" ballads eulogizing Mary Phagan are the exception -- have as their theme the grave injustice done to Leo Frank. The story of Mary Phagan's murder and Leo Frank's lynching have been written about and filmed dozens of times over the past nine decades. But some representations have presented a more complicated view of the material. This is particularly true of Oscar Micheaux's 1935 Murder in Harlem (originally titled Lem Hawkins' Confession and also known as The Brand of Cain) which he directed twenty years after the murder and trial.(2) This film provides crucial insights into the meanings that the Phagan murder and Frank lynching had for African American artists and audiences in the 1930s. But it is also a revealing case study of how narrative form can be used to create meaning and reality. Almost every retelling of the Phagan/Frank story persistently assumes, in sists on, Frank's innocence. This constant reiteration of the story has produced unquestioned "truths" about a variety of issues that are reinforced with each retelling: truths about Blacks and Jews and about the relationship between Blacks and Jews, as well as truths about the specters of deviant and dangerous sexuality often connected with each of these groups. These are questions that were central to the public discourse during the Leo Frank trial and have remained central to the case even today.

Considered the forefather of African American cinema, Oscar Micheaux wrote, produced, and directed at least 39 silent and sound films between 1919 and 1945.(3) Although Micheaux's claim that he attended the Frank trial has been difficult to verify, there is so much specific detail about the case and the trial in Murder in Harlem that it is clear he possessed a deep, nuanced knowledge of the case. Because Micheaux was the most important African American filmmaker working during this time, and because he was deeply knowledgeable about the interests and expectations of a national African American audience (his films were produced for and exhibited in Black movie houses), Murder in Harlem gives us a unique snapshot of how some in the African American community understood the social and political implications of Phagan murder/Frank lynching. This film holds an important place among retellings of the Mary Phagan/Leo Frank story not only because of this point of view, but because of its bold narrative strategies. By departing from the genres most commonly used in retelling this oft-told story, Micheaux discovered ways to challenge basic cultural assumptions central to the case.

Although there is much that can never be known about the Phagan/Frank story, the "facts" have been widely accepted as truth. …

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