By Ade Adeniji
Always in Season explores the history of lynching through the mysterious 2014 death of Lennon Lacy while also looking at historical reenactments of lynching, prompting some to question the value of conjuring up the past. The specter of lynching, though, has been depicted in American popular culture for decades, including in film and television. And while one might be tempted to argue that these portrayals have evolved straightforwardly as black Americans attained more full-fledged citizenship, depictions of lynching have often been layered and complicated, even during less progressive eras.
In D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1916), a sexually rapacious black captain Gus (played by a white actor in blackface) is lynched by the Klan after trying to marry a white woman named Flora, who would rather plunge to her death than elope with him. Griffith casts the Klan as heroes and blacks, including black soldiers and statesmen during Reconstruction, as the villains. On the heels of the film, the KKK resurged and along with it, racial terror inflicted upon black Americans. National membership in the Klan peaked at about 4.5 million a few years later. However, even back then, there was pushback against the film, with the NAACP attempting to ban it.
In 1920, pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux released his own silent film Within Our Gates. The lynching he stages pushes back against the lie of the noble Klanner carrying out extrajudicial killings by showing an ordinary black family fighting for their lives. Micheaux makes it clear who’s in the right and who’s in the wrong during a time when activists like Ida B. Wells were also trying to expose and curb the entrenched practice. While a black mother and father are killed in this scene, their young son pulls off his noose, survives a gunshot, and escapes on horseback. This conclusion would be unheard of in Griffith’s telling, whose audience would be deprived of their payoff of a dead black body. Instead, this young black boy gets to tell the story of the barbarism he survived, hopefully in a world that outlaws it.
Starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier, The Defiant Ones (1958) deals with the unlikely interracial pairing of two escaped prisoners, John and Noah. At one point our antiheroes are cornered, set to be lynched. There’s humor in the moments leading up to the expected violence, with the women and children being told to leave because of a “prayer meeting.” And when things finally escalate, the white John cries out “you can’t go lynching me, I’m a white man!” This feels surprising in that despite an obvious racial caste system in the Jim Crow South, the machinery behind it wasn’t always laid bare like that. There were certainly many rules, but many of them were unspoken and packaged in etiquette and decorum. At that moment, sure, John is just trying to save his hide. But he’s also admitting that his whiteness carries privilege – an advantage of which he is deeply aware.
In the lynch mob scene in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) everyone’s favorite movie lawyer Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) stands sentry outside the jail protecting Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl. In contrast to Griffith’s Flora, who “nobly” plunges to her death rather than succumb to miscegenation, Atticus, by defending Tom, breaks the social contract and thus deserves his same grisly fate. White womanhood is at the center of many lynching stories, and this also seems to hold true in depictions of lynching in media.
However, To Kill a Mockingbird complicates matters by also having Scout arrive on the scene, likely unaware of the circumstances. The young white girl addresses Mr. Cunningham, whom she recognizes amidst the bloodthirsty crowd; Scout goes to school with Cunningham’s son and her innocent appeal stops the mob in its tracks. One YouTube comment reads: “[Scout] is the bravest girl I have seen in ages. [S]he saved her dad and brother and Tom Robinson from lynching and she didn’t need to get violent but she used words and affected clearly on the men.”
Though set in the antebellum, Mandingo’s (1975) lynching scene feels very much out of its blaxploitation era. Slur du jour “peckerwood” rolls off militant character Cicero’s tongue as he’s captured by white slavers. But rather than beg for his life, Cicero gives a fearless harangue of his white executioners, punctuating it with “and after you hang me, kiss my ass!” It’s almost comically over the top, and on the nose. But it’s also deeply satisfying, with anachronistic lingo hammering home a nascent black empowerment message.
Much like Roots (1977), Mandingo pushes back against years of media past and even present that propagate the myth of the happy slave. Micheaux’s silent and respectable lynching victims are now unapologetically loud and righteous. The scene also calls for black unity and in what might be surprising to those ignorant of black militancy, is doubly hard on black folk who appear to uphold white supremacy; indeed, Cicero is only strung up on a tree after he’s hunted down by the film’s eponymous character, a fellow enslaved black man. “You see me hang, you’re gon’ know you killed a black brother!”
The late John Singleton’s Rosewood (1997), based on the true story of an all-black community in Florida destroyed by a mob, also focuses on black heroism. Singleton introduces a fictional outsider Mann (Ving Rhames), a WWI veteran who advocates for self-defense. Mann is a good example of the New Negro, a Harlem Renaissance era black empowerment ethos. Strung up on a tree, Mann somehow survives being suspended in the air long enough for white infighting to happen. The Sheriff openly admits that Mann probably didn’t attack a white woman named Fanny and even implies that she’s promiscuous. Other white members of the mob laugh, prompting Fanny’s husband James to fight the sheriff. And in the chaos, Mann escapes.
Like The Defiant Ones some forty years prior, Rosewood depicts a white society that at times lifts the veil and reveals the hollow machinery underneath. If the Sheriff admits he was willing to lynch an innocent man, doesn’t that undermine the sanctity of Jim Crow? What’s more, in Mann, we’re given a true hero to root for. Not only does Mann make an improbable escape, his neck holding up against the noose, but he saves his beloved horse to boot. All this in the state of Florida, which lynched more black people per capita than anywhere else in the country.
In more recent times, lynching depictions have continued in movies like 12 Years a Slave, the longest 2 minutes and 53 seconds you can imagine. Solomon Northup is kept in a state of near-strangulation all day. The camera doesn’t flinch and it’s shot in a single take. Daily life somehow continues on. Enslaved children play, birds chirp. Notably, there is no angry mob. Northup himself is seemingly alone, and yet we know that all the slaves on the plantation are watching him, afraid to act. While other scenes consider the mob, director Steve McQueen’s scene speaks to the protracted nature of individual suffering during lynching, and the message that sends to everyone else who could be victim to it.
And in HBO’s superhero subversion sensation Watchmen, Hooded Justice’s origin story is rooted in a near lynching at the hands of the police. The series largely focuses on Tulsa, Oklahoma, beginning in its Greenwood District, a prosperous neighborhood dubbed Black Wall Street, which was destroyed by white terrorism in 1921. Later in the series, Hooded Justice dons a hood, a repurposed noose, and white face in order to fight crime. Quite a departure from D.W. Griffith’s days. Then again, perhaps Micheaux’s young boy who escaped Jim Crow’s fate went on to become a hero, too.
Ade Adeniji is a Staff Writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. He’s also written for outlets like Mic, and The Rumpus, and blogs about film, television, and the majestic NBA on his own website, adeadeniji.com. He holds degrees from Pomona College and American Film Institute Conservatory.