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

Matthew H. Bernstein,
Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television.
Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8203-3239-0
US$24.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Georgia Press)

Matthew H. Bernstein’s Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television is an exhaustively researched historical study that introduces a famous case of lynching and closely analyzes its representation on film and television. The book is exemplary for its rigor, and is authoritative on the subject of the Leo Frank case and its cultural legacy. It is also very readable, with the slight qualification that the proliferation of character names in the discussion of Oscar Micheaux’s adaptation and re-adaptation of the case occasionally frustrates.

The case in question is the 1915 lynching of a northern Jewish man, Leo Frank, in Marietta, Georgia after he was granted an appeal of his death sentence for the murder of Mary Phagan, a young employee in the pencil factory he managed, by then-governor John Slaton. Bernstein begins in chapter one with Oscar Micheaux’s 1936 “race” film Murder in Harlem (USA 1935), itself a remake of Micheaux’s no longer extant Lem Hawkins’ Confession of the previous year, which transplants the Frank case from Georgia to New York and plays freely with historical details. Chapter two looks to a studio adaptation of the case, more or less contemporary with Micheaux’s independent production – the 1937 Warner Bros. social consciousness film They Won’t Forget (USA 1937) – and particularly to the way the film’s social message was shaped through the cooperation of progressive filmmakers and a censorship committee concerned with the regional sensitivities involved in the portrayal of lynching and of a malfunctioning justice system. Following a brief “interlude” that quickly (too quickly for my tastes) announces the transition “from film to television,” chapter three examines the 1964 Robert Saudek production for NBC of an episode of the Profiles in Courage (USA 1964) series, produced in cooperation with representatives of the Kennedy administration and devoted to the courageousness of Governor Slaton who granted Frank’s appeal at personal peril and at the sacrifice of his own political career. Finally, chapter four takes up the 1988 two-part NBC mini-series The Murder of Mary Phagan (USA 1988), a lavishly “cinematic” production that was the first to attempt a “complete” telling of the story, including the issue of anti-Semitism, unimpeded by censorship.

Bernstein’s book is a model of historical research. One has the impression that the project is the culmination of a long period of gestation and archival digging that has left no stone unturned. The breadth of materials is impressive: Bernstein not only draws upon wide-ranging secondary historical literature on the case and on the episodes in film history where it resurfaces, but also on a wealth of primary materials including censorship records, rare films, historical newspapers, novels and plays, production materials, personal papers, and interviews. Ironically, the book is so well researched that it may at times suffer from too much detail. The chapters move through production background, cast and crew biography, critical reception, censorship procedure and exhibition circumstances, systematically establishing the context for readings of the films through which Bernstein primarily evaluates the representation of the Frank case. While this approach makes the book highly informative, the proportion of historical exposition to close reading is such that it sometimes tends toward the encyclopedic.

In this regard, Bernstein’s book has the side effect of inviting reflection on questions of methodology. In particular, the project confronts the reader with the question of the value of individual texts and the priority of textual evaluation, questions central to the disciplinary coherence of film studies as a field that continues to be pulled between the text-centered methodology of criticism and a historical or “media studies” orientation in which the value of the text itself is often secondary to other concerns. It is striking that Bernstein’s book is guided neither by exceptional texts nor by a proper media history, but by fairly haphazard appearances of Leo Frank, which carry the book on an unlikely trajectory from a race film to an NBC mini-series. How much can so disparate a set of texts tell us about media history, and what is the place for criticism within a historical study thus designed? What does such a project tell us about the extent to which the text or the medium itself should preside over film studies and determine its disciplinary concerns?

In the end, Bernstein’s book leaves these disciplinary questions open, or else in neglecting them shows its investments to be located elsewhere. Insofar as the Frank case is unique for the issues of anti-Semitism, of northern-southern conflict and of class tensions it raises, it is a good litmus test for representational politics across a broad swath of twentieth-century American media culture. The Leo Frank trial and lynching are especially compelling as a test case if we assume, with Bernstein, that this lynching occupies a privileged place in American collective consciousness, though one might question whether this claim is overstated given that the important film and television treatments are relatively few and, but for Bernstein’s excellent introductions, relatively obscure.

The sentences with which Bernstein concludes his study reinforce the impression that Leo Frank has spoken to us more of social history than of film and television: “Filmmakers and television show creators will continue to return to this tale. It will be fascinating to see what they do with it.” (p. 250). As parting words, these are not entirely satisfying if what one reads for are conclusions about media history. But part of what makes the book an occasion for reflection on methodology is that the lack of such conclusions is not necessarily a shortcoming. The project is precisely what Bernstein calls it: a history of the Leo Frank case on Film and Television, and not, in other words, a history of film and television told through the Leo Frank case.

Throughout the book there is also no clear hierarchy of texts. In Bernstein’s analysis, each of the four productions under consideration seems of approximately equal value not only as a historical document, but also as an aesthetic object. Bernstein does imply a special appreciation for They Won’t Forget, evident in his praise of the elegant strategy of “metonymic displacement” through which the film handles the then-undepictable lynching scene. A mailbag hanging alongside train tracks suggests the form of Frank’s hanging body in a substitution that Bernstein very insightfully notes was probably inspired by the influential UK General Post Office documentary Night Mail of 1936. Bernstein also appreciates Micheaux’s complex “subtextual exploitation film” style, the “quality television” ambitions of the Profiles in Courage series, and the willfully cinematic treatment of the mini-series. But the aesthetic analysis generally stops short of making strong judgments about the films themselves. If, as Bernstein suggests in his preface, films dealing with historical subjects might be evaluated as much as a variety of literary adaptation as in terms of documentation, it is not clear that this is always the approach he chooses in practice.

There is much insight to be had from Bernstein’s study about race films, socially progressive studio films of the thirties, and American television production from the 1960s docudrama to the epic network productions of the 1980s. It is a mark of the book’s success, in spite of what I understand to be its self-imposed limitations, that each individual chapter might be read as a focused, self-contained media history, even if this is less true of the project taken as a whole. On their respective subjects, Bernstein’s authoritative chapters will be very valuable resources.

Ryan Cook,
Yale University.

Created on: Saturday, 19 December 2009

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