'Always in Season': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Infuriating and eye-opening.

Jacqueline Olive's documentary examines the culture of lynching in the U.S., focusing on two cases several decades apart.

We like to think things get better, though history (far-past and recent) frequently suggests otherwise. In the case of Jacqueline Olive's upsetting documentary, Always in Season, the moral, very much in keeping with its gut-wrenching title, might be "same as it ever was."

The film looks into the case of Lennon Lacy, a 17-year-old African-American from Bladenboro, North Carolina, who was found hanging from a swing set in August 2014. After a very negligent investigation, Lennon's death was ruled a suicide, though the teen's mother, Claudia, and many others besides, believed it was really racist foul play — a modern-day lynching. By the time the FBI was called in to look further, the evidence was (in their view) tainted enough that nothing more could be sufficiently determined.

Using Claudia as her focal point, Olive paints a portrait of righteous rage and determination. In the absence of legal justice, Lennon's mother recognizes the important thing is to tell her son's story, to keep his spirit alive via her words and her activism, as well as her vulnerability. One of the most powerful scenes occurs when a discussion between the filmmaker and Claudia is interrupted by the loud whistle of a train. Claudia reacts with here-we-go-again exasperation, which breaks the studied spell of the standard talking head interview and draws us in closer.

Claudia goes on to explain how the train has always been a constant nuisance, then gets quiet as it passes by. The sounds clearly stir up some memories, so Olive and her crew focus the camera on Claudia's steeled yet wistful face, allowing some shattering emotion to emerge through the unforeseen silence. The right mix of words and stillness make Lennon that much more present in his unjust absence.

A good many movies might only devote time to the Lacy case (there's certainly plenty to explore). But Olive widens her scope to examine the history of lynching in the U.S., concentrating on one event in particular — the 1946 Moore's Ford Lynchings in Georgia. The particulars are horrific: A white supremacist mob grabbed four African-Americans — George W. Dorsey, his pregnant wife Mae, Roger Malcolm and his wife Dorothy — out of their car due to allegations that Malcolm stabbed a white man. The mob then took them into the woods, shot and hung them, and, in the most nauseating part of an already sickening act, cut the fetus from Mae Dorsey's dead body.

Despite the intervention of then-President Harry S. Truman and the FBI, no one was ever charged, and any and all professional investigations into the case were concluded only recently, in January 2018. Once again, with no convictions, nor resolution. Like Claudia Lacy with her son, all that's left is to tell and retell the story. So for several years, a revolving troupe of actors have performed a re-enactment of the Moore's Ford Lynchings on the very sites where they occurred.

Olive follows the rehearsals for the latest production, using them as macro counterpoint to the Lacy story. For many in the African-American community, the performance serves as a kind of exorcism. One of the actors in the production cries while watching a videotape of a previous year's staging. As in the scene with Claudia Lacy and the train, Olive holds on the woman's face as she tears up, but remains steadfast and open-eyed. You get the sense that to avert her gaze, even from a re-staging, would be to acquiesce to fear, loathing and much, much worse.

The shame of the Moore's Ford Lynchings is also shown to cut across generations. Several of the white actors portraying the lynchers have genetic ties to white supremacists. One of them recalls a time when, as a very young girl, she was taken to a lynching overseen by her father, a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. She still can't reconcile the disconnect between family man and fanatic. But if horrible past actions of this sort can never be forgiven, she and everyone involved in the re-enactment are determined to make sure they are never forgotten.

The Lacy story is still Always in Season's primary thread, and Olive saves some of the most damning details, which strongly dispute the idea that Lennon's death was a suicide, for late in the film. It's a manipulative tactic, to some degree, though there's purpose to it. Olive wants her viewers to feel the sense of helplessness and uncertainty that initially surrounded the case — how seeds of doubt were cultivated by all the shoddy investigating. And then she presents some very incriminating evidence that, if not 100 percent open and shut, is still glaring enough that it should have been considered from day one of the inquiry. The fact that it wasn't is maddening, and yet, sad to say, completely unsurprising.

A familiar picture emerges of whites covering for the established institutions that they oversee with unfair advantage. Under such a system, even the most obvious motivations become suspect, and brushed off with a genteel shrug. People in power effectively say, "Yes, we know something terrible happened." The worst of them likely think, "And we don't care."

Another child dead, another parent grieving. One more story to tell. And never forget.

Production company: Multitude Films
Director: Jacqueline Olive
Producers: Jacqueline Olive, Jessica Devaney
Co-producers: Lisa Valencia-Svensson, Anya Rous
Editor: Don Bernier
Composer: Osei Essed
Narrator: Danny Glover
Cinematographers: Patrick Sheehan, S. Leo Chiang
Animation: Scott Grossman
Executive producers: Jim Butterworth, Daniel J. Chalfen, Patty Quillin, Sally Jo Fifer, Leslie Fields-Cruz, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn Dreyfous, Lois Vossen
Associate producer: Colleen Cassingham
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Doc)

89 minutes