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Always in Season connects the history of lynching in America to its horrifying present

Director Jacqueline Olive wanted audiences to “have a stake” in understanding communities traumatized by violence.

A woman stands framed by a swingset.
Claudia Lacy returns to the spot where her teenage son, Lennon, was found hanging on August 29, 2014, in the documentary Always in Season.
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

On August 29, 2014, Lennon Lacy — a 17-year-old black student at West Bladen High School in Bladenboro, North Carolina — was found dead, hanging from a swing set in his mobile home community. Though his death was initially declared a suicide by the police, his community believed that Lacy, who was in a relationship with an older white woman, had been lynched.

Lacy’s story, and the stories of other black men who have been found dead in communities throughout the South in similar conditions, form the backbone of Always in Season, Jacqueline Olive’s documentary that seeks to weave together the history of lynching in America and the ways communities have hidden and obfuscated it. Olive talks to Lacy’s family and community, and follows other cases of suspected lynchings, drawing parallels between historical accounts and today.

Always in Season is not an easy film to watch, but it’s an important one, vital enough to garner a special jury prize for “moral urgency” at the Sundance Film Festival in 2019. (I was a member of the jury that awarded the prize.) Now the film is making its broadcast premiere on PBS, so I spoke with Olive by phone about making her film and how she coped with looking at the images and telling the stories throughout the long process.

Alissa Wilkinson

You worked on this film for a long time — 10 years in all. How did you first decide to make it?

Jacqueline Olive

I spent a few years researching and developing the project before I began filming, because I wanted to make sure that I understood comprehensively the terrorism that was lynching. The more that I researched, the more apparent the brutality was. Just about the time that I thought I wrapped my head around it, there would be an even more brutal case.

It took me about two years to be able to understand the violence and the level of motivation that becomes the groundwork for the violence.

When I found that there were people on the ground doing work in justice and reconciliation, I realized that that was my way into the story. I didn’t want to just profit off the trauma — I wanted to understand what people were doing to honor the victims and to lay the groundwork for healing in the community.

Claudia Lacy, mother of Lennon Lacy, hangs laundry outside her home in Bladenboro, North Carolina, near where her son was found dead.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

I filmed the communities where people were doing ground-level work for justice and reconciliation, like in north Georgia, where reenactors get together and dramatize a 1946 quadruple lynching that happened outside of Atlanta. I had been filming in those communities for about four years, and filming the reenactors for three years in a row.

Just about the time that I was ready to wrap production in July 2014 is when I learned about Lennon Lacy’s death. I reached out to his mother, Claudia, because I wanted to understand more. Also, because my son was Lennon’s age [at the time], I was having what I assumed were the same discussions that she had with Lennon, which I ultimately found out was the case — the discussions about police brutality, and about how to protect yourself. Those conversations with my son had been abstract but became more specific as he got older.

All of those things are what I imagined Claudia had experienced raising her son. But I cannot imagine what it must be like to not just lose your child, but to find out he’s been lynched. I couldn’t imagine how horrible and horrific that would be. So I reached out because I wanted to know more and understand more.

As I talked to Claudia, I learned that, in fact, in the previous year, she and Lennon had watched the footage of Trayvon Martin’s trial, and she had talked with Lennon about being careful, about not wearing hoodies, and all of those kinds of conversations that you’d unfortunately have to have as black parents. Those are the conversations that we have to have with our children.

The more that I talked with Claudia and other folks in the community, the more I understood the parallels between what was going on in the community and what was spreading around the country. Like the way that the police showed up, or often didn’t show up, and then didn’t appropriately give history or the racial divisions in communities like Bladenboro enough consideration. I decided that [Lacy’s] case was the way to anchor the story and the narrative that I’d already been developing about the connections between the past and the present. So I spent four more years filming in Bladenboro.

The challenge when you film really powerful stories for eight years in [several] communities around the country is how you bring those together for a narrative that is succinct and compelling. I started working with Don Bernier, the lead editor on the project. He’s incredibly talented at telling a story that was immersive, that could break down the barriers we have when we separate the past from the present, as if we were walled off from history.

I wanted people to be really immersed in the story. That’s why you see the scenes of the reenactments, because I wanted people to have a stake in understanding the issues around the story.

Alissa Wilkinson

You’re talking about breaking down the disconnect people want to create between the past and the present. We might acknowledge that lynching happened in the past, but we don’t want to think it’s happening today, or that there’s a connection between events in the past and events in the present.

Jacqueline Olive

I think it’s really important that people understand that there was a lot of cover-up and denial, historically, around lynching. A lot of these newspaper articles that you see in the film, that archival footage, are from black newspapers. There wasn’t enough mainstream coverage of this seminal violence in communities. In many of the communities where I filmed, at least half of the town came out to watch a lynching and cheer it on.

That is a violent collective experience. It’s also violence that is imprinted upon communities, whether or not you acknowledge it. The terrorism within the black community is horrific. And it’s obvious, when bodies were left in the black community during the days following a lynching, that they were threats for people not to step out of line. That’s just another level of terrorism for black folks.

But it was terrorism for white people, too. There was trauma for white people as well. Even when they showed up to cheer on the violence, they still had to go back home and live with the smell of burning flesh, live with the sights that they saw of hangings and murder, and live with knowing that other people in their community, including authorities, signed off on [the lynching]. I think that one of the repercussions that we don’t look at enough is the cognitive dissonance that has been developed over generations in white families about this history that they have been witness to and participated in.

There’s also this understanding that issues of racial violence, and violence against people in the margins of society, aren’t given the attention and acknowledgment that they should. You have, for example, young kids who knew historically about lynching, who knew about the violence, and yet their parents told them not to talk about it. That tells children that they’ve had experiences, things that they know happened, that they shouldn’t acknowledge. That gets passed down from generation to generation.

That’s why we have a loss of understanding in a lot of communities. When people don’t have those conversations, then they develop an understanding that things must be better. Because the stories don’t go along with the narrative a community has about itself, and doesn’t acknowledge racism, structural racism, and racial violence.

Claudia Lacy visits her son Lennon’s grave.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Alissa Wilkinson

Some of the most powerful moments in the film come when we watch the reenactors, who, year after year, go through the traumatic experience of reliving lynchings that really happened. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how it must have affected you to spend years of your own with this material, listening to stories, looking at photos, reliving people’s trauma. What was that experience like for you?

Jacqueline Olive

There’s a lot that I learned. Just about the time that I thought I understood the violence, I learned about an incident that was even more heinous. In 2010, I met a woman, Doria Johnson, whose great-great-grandfather Anthony Crawford was lynched in Abbeville, South Carolina, in the early 1900s. One of the things that surprised me when I first started talking with folks is how resonant and emotional and painful these murders still were for people and their families. That lynching is emotionally painful for Doria and her relatives. Anthony Crawford was a patriarch in the family. He had more than 400 acres of land, which were stolen. Thirteen children were made to leave the estate within 48 hours. So when I met Doria, she was still meeting [her] family members for the first time.

Part of the repercussions, the residue, of lynching is that you have economic loss for black people. You have the severing of family ties. There are other things that are hard to realize unless you come to understand all of the details. There are so many lessons.

I looked at lynching photographs again and again, far more than we see in the film. There were times when I could look at them with my director’s eye, and weeks later, that same image would just completely floor me. I learned that it was important that I pay attention and look at practices for healing, for myself and for our team. There are things that I started to do, like meditating regularly, and burning sage, and other things that were really about making sure that I had the emotional ability to stay with the materials instead of turning away from it.

Also, I looked at all the emotions that were coming up for the people I was filming with — the pain, the anger, the fear, the guilt and shame, and how they were present in it, and they were processing it and still doing the work that most of the country wasn’t willing to do in 2010. We were still at the tail end of that narrative about living in a post-racial society, so most of the country wasn’t willing to even look at racial violence privately. That there were people that were facing this on the ground was really inspiring for me.

I love documentary filmmaking. I really love the challenge of it. This subject is really huge. It’s weighty. It’s also enormous. That was really exciting for me is to figure out. As complicated and frustrating as it could be at times, it’s part of the craft. I was really excited about figuring out how to tell this story in the way that served all of the elements of it, including the people that I filmed with there.

Always in Season will have its broadcast premiere on PBS’s Independent Lens on February 24 and stream on the website for several weeks after. Check your local listings for more information.

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