I figured I could handle the matinee prices at this year's Tribeca Film Fest ($14). I'm glad I swallowed my complaints and went, because my choice for today: "Lillie and Leander: A Legacy of Violence" was a movie worth seeing on a big screen, and seeing at a festival. In our culture, so saturated with cathartic stories of violence, justice and redemption, there have been very few films that have dealt seriously with the issue of lynching. "Lillie and Leander" succeeds in tackling this difficult subject because of the way it makes the past so present.
The film, which centers on a hunt for long-buried bodies evokes in the viewer a sense of the South as a haunted place where death and terror are both ubiquitous and invisible. At one point, an archaeologist says of what she expects to find at one promising site something to the effect that "the graves will be shallow. Just dirt thrown quickly to cover the bodies." But, in the end, the bodies can't be found.
It's a bit like a metaphor for the larger problem. During the film, we hear the stories of living communities, both Black and white, who simultaneously have carried around and handed down secrets of extraordinary violence in the midst of the mundanest of lives. A Black family sits on the screened porch as the eldest member talks about the day the white folks came for Uncle Wiley in the middle of the night. Several people say that they knew not to go to that county, where there was a sign on the road that read "Read, Nigger and Run, and if you Can't Read, Run Anyhow."
After a large picnic, the whites whisper and and some laugh nervously about what their uncles and grandfathers did over at the "curve in the road", about a small child finding a skull on the ground near the local church.
The stories match up eerily. In one especially poweful sequence, the film juxtaposes the narrow perspectives of the whites who think the deaths are insgignificant anyway, with the discussions of lost relatives and friends among the Blacks, all punctuated by shovels smacking the dirt of a suspected grave-site. In these interviews, people express great truths without any effort at profundity. The film-maker's 96 year old uncle stumbles along, trying to explain what the outcome will be if they find some bodies now. He looks worried about whay may happen now that times have changed, and says, "Of course, there wasn't much...there wasn't really any...law back then." Despite that concern, the hard evidence has yet to come out in Pensacola. As the film-makers explained in the Q&A after the screening, the more they found out about the bodies, the less interested were the police in investigating the scene.
Like Anna Rasmus, the real woman depicted in the the German film, "The Nasty Girl" , Alice Bruton Hurwitz's research into the story of her own family and town led to controversy. Several outspoken members of her family would much prefer that the past be kept that way and in their efforts to keep the secret within the family, they reveal the same indifference to Black lives as their murderous parents. However, unlike Hurwitz's family, the city of Pensacola has proven to be supportive, and is screening "Lillie and Leander" next fall at their own festival. I look forward to the dialogue that this film may inspire when it does, and when it moves to other Southern venues, but I admit I feel a bit trepidatious when I think about the number of similar buried secrets that may come to light in its wake. That reaction must be a sign that this movie works in some important way; it opens up, but does not neatly resolve or seal up the big problem of racial violence in our society. As the archaelogist suggests at the end of another day of digging, "the fact that we didn't find the body today doesn't mean there aren't bodies there; they just aren't in the spot where we looked." But one reason the bodies were so hard to find was that the smell of the cadavers had, over time dispersed into the soil itself. It's not unlike the way we experience race today: the problem is all around us but it's become so diffuse that it's very difficult for most people to see it, to identify it and do something about it.