Independent filmmaker Jacqueline Olive, who has worked in non-fiction filmmaking for years and co-directed and co-produced the award-winning hour-long documentary, Black to Our Roots (PBS WORLD), makes her feature documentary directing debut with the searing Always in Season, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
A film that Olive thought would take 2-3 years to make as it explored lynchings in America and a dramatic recreation of one infamous lynching, took an unexpected and expansive turn when she learned of the shocking death of Lennon Lacy. In August 2014, the young African American man was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina. His suspicious death was ruled suicide by law enforcement, but Lennon’s mother, Claudia, her family, and many others believe Lennon was lynched. Olive started following that story as she connected with the surviving family.
The film ultimately took ten years altogether. “One of the keys to doc filmmaking is you need to find a subject you’re passionate about,” Olive told me. “The thing that helped me stick with it is the issues were so hugely important to me.”
“This film should be seen,” wrote Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. “It is an unflinching look at how the racial sins of the past flow through the arteries of the present day.” Adds David Zurawik in the Baltimore Sun: Always in Season is the kind of socially-conscious and historically-informed documentary that can spark that kind of tough conversation about the nation’s racial past ― a conversation that seems so badly needed today.”
The North Carolina-based Olive (she’s originally from Mississippi) talked with me by phone about how she brought these stories together, how she got to know Claudia Lacy, and how a film about lynching is as relevant as ever.
Can you talk about how you first heard of the story of what happened to Lennon Lacy, and what inspired you to want to make a film about it? Did that come first or were you first making a film about the broader story of lynching?
Yeah I was filming the broader story, in Monroe (Georgia) and Atlanta, covering the reenactments of the quadruple lynching murders that happened there in 1946 of [two African American couples], the Malcolms and the Dorseys. The Moore’s Ford lynchings. The reenactments happened in late July 2014, I’d finished and thought I was ready to wrap production and less than a month later I learned about Lennon’s case. I think I read a small article online that gave me a bit of information. My son was 17 at the time and I could not imagine how Claudia, Lennon’s mother, must have been dealing with the death of her son. And that he was suspected of being lynched. I just imagined how traumatic that must have been for her.
I reached out, wanting to get a better understanding of what was going on around the case. I got on the ground shortly afterward, started speaking to people, started to understand that there were so many parallels between what folks in Bladenboro were dealing with around that nightmare and what happened historically in communities relative to the perpetrators and victims.
And what was the media coverage of that tragedy at the time, in 2014? It seemed sparse as I recall — was that due to the timing of it or what?
Yeah, Lennon’s body was found 20 days after Michael Brown’s body was found in Ferguson, Missouri. There was a lot of media attention on the uprising there, rightfully so, but I think that in part overshadowed this case. It’s never really gotten the coverage it deserves. And Lennon’s case is one of dozens of cases of black people found hanging publicly, since 2000. They’ve all been ruled suicide. And most of those cases have not gotten even the attention that Lennon’s case received.
News media showed up more that December when Claudia got together with the NAACP to organize a protest with the intention of getting the FBI to open an investigation, to re-open the case. So there were news outlets in Bladenboro then. Then they were back again in June of 2016 when the FBI made their decision on the case. And haven’t really been back on the ground there with any intensity since then. So the way this case has been handled really comes out of that history of the way media and journalists have handled lynching cases historically, which has been with very scant attention to the violence. A lot of the coverage on historic lynchings were by black newspapers and a lot of the detailed information about what went on came from black newspapers.
There are so many parallels between the history and what’s going on now, and it’s the reason why I decided this storyline ultimately–after spending time there and talking to people–was the key to making Always in Season, in framing the narrative. Because whether Lennon committed suicide or whether or not he was lynched it was important officials and in particular police showed up, considering this history and the racial divisions in the area. To not do the investigations in this context meant that they couldn’t adequately investigate Lennon’s death, and these cases have often not been investigated adequately historically.
Speaking of those dramatic recreations of the lynchings, that’s a very difficult thing for people to understand. Can you talk about your reaction to hearing about those first, what surprised you about those when you first actually saw them in person and whether they give you hope as a tool for reconciliation?
So I had been researching the film and reading about the reenactments, and it took me awhile then to wrap my head around what the reenactments mean, because [Monroe, Georgia] is the only one that I know of in the United States, could be the only one in the world. It’s very rare. So I started to think about how people reenact the Civil War, and why. it’s similar in that people are looking to tell the story as they know it about this history. Also to make sure the victims are never forgotten. A lot of the details of lynching, a lot of the violence, went unrecorded because journalists and medical examiners and coroners would show up on the scene, and have no incentive to talk about the violence that was committed.
For the Monroe reenactors, part of it is to tell the story–there’s some controversy in the details of how they tell the story, but [civil rights activist] Bobby Howard who originally organized these reenactments spent decades looking at oral histories in that community with family members of the victims and other folks who were alive at the time. So that’s what the details of their portrayals are based on.
It’s important that folks there are organically expressing the story as they know it, to round out our understanding of the Moore’s Ford bridge lynching. I filmed in Monroe for three years, and what I saw initially in 2010, is that folks were really looking at justice. They believe there may be people still alive who participated in the lynching or whose family were involved.
And part of their motivation is so that people will step forward and be compelled to talk about who was involved. That folks were doing this meant that people over the years had stepped forward and there’s been a national spotlight on this case in ways there would not have been. I find that very necessary and impactful.
And it begins a dialogue. It’s a first step toward justice, reconciliation, and truth-telling. It’s a very important step in that people come together for conversations about this case, about this history, about other cases, like Lennon Lacy’s. It’s hugely important for building the coalitions that are needed to do the work for reconciliation.
How long did it take or how did you approach trying to get the trust of the Lacy family, of Claudia, to tell the story? How did you first approach them since they were still dealing with all of this, for them to let you into their lives in this intimate way?
There are a couple of key components in documentary filmmaking. It’s always important to me and in this story in particular, with the Lacys and everyone in this community that I wasn’t just in and out, but looking really deeply into the complications that the story merits. So I reached out to Claudia, and she wasn’t really available to speak in the first week or two. So I spent a lot of time with Pierre, Lennon’s older brother, and he was really helpful.
Then when I started speaking with Claudia, I was just struck by how open she was. She’s certainly interested in getting his story out but she’s also just generally an open person despite the grief and the anger she must’ve been feeling. She’s very concerned about other children in that community and other all the people in Bladenboro, that it was important for everyone, including herself and her family, that they found answers into what happened to Lennon.
From the very beginning, Claudia was open and that trust grew over time. I spent four years filming there, until 2018. When we went to interview [her son] Pierre in Virginia, Claudia and I took a road trip there and had conversations through the night. Just getting to know each other. It helped her understand the depths of my intentions but also helped her be more confident in my ability to tell this story.
And it’s never fully clear to folks [involved in this story] until they actually see the film what it can do–her response was so positive in seeing the film. She was really moved by the story and felt that it was important that she’s present with the film, that she’s traveled with us to festivals. And she’s been on panels to discuss the film, again and again. That she has that kind of response because she values the film has been particularly meaningful to me.
Is Claudia still living in Bladenboro and if so is it hard to still be somewhere so close to the tragedy?
Claudia is living in the same area and is raising her grandchildren, even though it’s in same place where she believes there’s a murderer who killed her son. So there are difficulties inherent in all that. But North Carolina is still her home and she’s said very charismatically that no one is gonna make her move, this is her home, a place where she is inextricably linked over generations, so it’s as much a home for her as it is for anyone else. She’s quite courageous and very determined to stay.
Has anything come up from the discussions at screenings of the film that has been particularly powerful for her?
I think it’s really empowering for people when they see themselves on a screen, particularly a theater screen in which they are larger than life, and see their story told in this way–it’s all empowering. And also for them to see audiences relating to the story. Each time she gets a standing ovation, and sees people standing and clapping for her in tears. It’s indescribably moving for her to share these moments with audiences together. And people have offered their support and wanted to help and have offered that in many different ways.
When we first started doing screenings and discussion I could tell Claudia was still taking in the larger context of Lennon’s story and how it fit into this larger history. She’s gotten so good at talking about it, and having conversations about the greater issues around structural racism, the larger picture. It’s been really beneficial to her.
You give an update at the end of the film, but with the case officially “closed” if unresolved by Federal investigators, what is left for Claudia to do? Does the Lacy family keep it open and keep trying to investigate?
Yeah, they were told if they can present new evidence to the Justice Department they would consider re-opening the case, but that puts the burden, the onus on the family to do the work. They’ve talked about hiring a private investigator to continue looking into it.
And where can people go to learn more about this history and efforts at racial justice and reconciliation?
- First place to go can be our website, where we’ve put together a resource library where we’ll have a bibliography on all the books and films that I came across in the years I was researching these stories. And we also have information about the organizations we’re partnering with. Resources for collaborating around racial justice.
- And then there is the Equal Justice Initiative: their website has maps and information, they are completely focused on lynchings in the South. And the Tuskeegee Institute has also documented lynching. I started out filming with Dan Duster and Michelle Duster who are Ida B Wells’ great-grandchildren, and have written books on Wells, who was an early anti-lynching activist. Their work is also a great resource.
- Also a book by Warren Read, one of the descendants of a victim in the 1920 Duluth lynching: The Lyncher in Me.
- Sherrilyn Ifill, who is the head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, wrote a book about a lynching on the eastern shore of Maryland called On the Courthouse Lawn.
- [And there’s a discussion guide for the film from Indie Lens. ]
What films or filmmakers were influential on you as you worked on this film?
[I had] many filmmakers in mind but especially Stanley Nelson, who was one of my first mentors and who made many films about black history, including The Murder of Emmett Till about a teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. When I first studied film in grad school and then got my degree, I started looking at who is the best documentary filmmaker out there. Stanley Nelson was the first person who came to mind, and I reached out to him. He’d just moved his company from NY to Berkeley and asked if I could intern with him. I learned so much about filmmaking from Stanley, and his production company Firelight Media ultimately became a supporter of my project.
And also Marco Williams, whose Two Towns of Jasper was really inspiring, and then Banished was a film where he looked at pogroms where black people were expelled violently from communities around the country. Banished looked at multiple communities and stories, and also featured historic reenactments in Monroe and North Carolina, so there’s a bit of overlap. It showed how you weave these communities together, and Banished did a wonderful job with that. That was definitely a work that inspired me.
And also Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah, a beautiful movie.
An amazing film that is also ten hours!
Yeah I love documentaries so much that ten hours is nothing to me, but I try to control myself on my own projects. [laughs]
Why is your production company is called “Tell It Media”? What does that phrase mean to you?
It’s based on truthtelling, and I came up with the name because it comes out of the tradition of the “call and response” in black churches, between the preacher, usually elders, and the congregation. The minister will say something and the congregation will say “Tell it!” like “amen,” “that’s true,” it’s “tell it!” An encouragement to tell the truth, to be accurate, despite the difficulty, to always prioritize honesty and accuracy.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on or planning to work on next?
I’m developing several projects right now, and one of them I’m excited about is called They Tried to Bury Us. I’m executive producing it and its directed by Bree Newsome Bass. It’s a really exciting project that looks at the push and pull in Charlotte N.C. between their desire to be a progressive hub of the “New South,” and there’s been a lot of progressive activism there, led in part by Bree, working with people there on issues of housing and education and a lot of issues that the rest of the country is struggling with in terms of equity. They’ve been enormously successful in NC, and in Charlotte. But it’s about this tension in the midst of all that, with Charlotte deciding to host the Republican National Convention. They’re spending enormous amounts of money to host the RNC, $50+ million just for security alone. That’s the entire budget for housing there. That’s an issue that Bree has worked really hard on, in tackling homelessness, segregation, gentrification. The film is very much about the struggle to define the new south, and what that means and who gets the opportunities.
I’m also developing a series about more recent hanging cases, looking at each case individually from an investigative reporter perspective. And to understand the greater context. With these cases it’s egregious they haven’t gotten more coverage, and it’s important to understand whether or not black folks have been deciding to commit suicide in this way, which is very atypical, these public hangings–generally people hang themselves in the privacy of their own homes. So either there’s this trend of suicide, which is hugely important to understand, OR there’s violence, and both of those are what we’re going to look at, including mental health for black folks.
Lastly, I wanted to shout out the people who helped me make Always in Season happen. Documentary filmmaking is highly collaborative, and one of the best things about making films is I get to work with really talented, committed and wonderful people. Some of those folks are Don Bernier, the lead editor. Jessica Devaney, the producing partner, and all the folks at Multitude Films. Osei Essed, the composer. So many people.
The great thing about premiering at Sundance is the opportunity to bring crew members who’d never met each other because one might have worked in year one and one worked in years nine and ten. It’s really beautiful.