GOOD DOCS spoke to Jacqueline Olive, director of Always in Season. The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at Sundance, and explores the lingering impact of more than a century of lynching African Americans.
Interview conducted by Barbara Olachea.
First, I want to congratulate you on this film and the success you are having. Can you tell me what your film is about?
Always in Season explores the multi-generational impact of more than a century of lynching of African-Americans, and I filmed in communities around the country where lynching happened, looking at what people were doing on the ground for justice and reconciliation while connecting this form of racial terrorism to racial violence today through the story of a seventeen-year-old boy named Lennon Lacy who was found hanging from a swing set in Bladenboro, North Carolina in 2014. Many people there, including Lennon’s mother, Claudia, believe that he was lynched. The film follows Claudia’s fight to get an FBI investigation opened into her son’s death.
When did you know that you wanted to make Always In Season? What compelled you to tackle this complicated and painful topic?
I began formulating the idea for the film after recalling the collection of lynching photographs and postcards called “Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America” that I’d seen in the early 2000s. Some of those images are in the film. I wanted to know more about who the victims were, and the more I looked at the images and researched to understand their stories, I began to realize that the spectators in those photographs could have been my neighbors. They had faces like those of my friends, and I wanted to know more about how they came to be in the midst of the violence, as well. So, I spent two years researching the subject in 2008 and 2009 before I began filming, ultimately for eight years until 2018. As I learned increasingly more about the scope of the violence that truly was terrorism for everyone in communities around the country, whether acknowledged or not, I found that there were people on the ground in small pockets around the country doing work for justice and reconciliation. Those grassroots efforts were my entry into the story.
I began filming in 2010, and filmed for four years in eight or nine cities from Duluth, Minnesota, to Laurens, South Carolina, exploring the ways people were confronting historic lynching in order to remember the victims, work at repair, and to lay the groundwork for reconciliation and healing in their communities. One of those cities that’s featured in the film is Monroe, Georgia, where a diverse group of people annually reenact the quadruple lynching of the Malcoms and the Dorseys in 1946 on the Moore’s Ford Bridge. I was drawn to the stories of ordinary people who showed up to participate, often with no previous acting experience, for a myriad of personal reasons. The reenactment director, Cassandra Greene, had been a target herself of racial violence when white supremacists shot into the window of the trailer where she lived in Charleston, SC. Olivia Taylor came to the reenactment to consult on the wardrobe because she is a “child of the Klan”, as she puts it, and knew how Klansmen like her father dressed. Olivia ultimately decided to help dramatize the lynching herself. So, there was a rich mix of courage and complexity that inspired me to continue filming in that community for three years in a row until late July 2014 when I was finally ready to wrap production.
However, less than a month later, I learned about Lennon Lacy’s death and went to Bladenboro shortly afterward to better understand what happened to Lennon and the impact on folks on the ground there. The more that I talked with Claudia and others, the clearer the connections became to all that people were still experiencing in the communities where I’d been filming for years and the nightmare playing out in Bladenboro.
In your previous short documentary Black To Our Roots, the main character is interested in tracing the history of her ancestors which among other things includes slavery. What do you think is the value of younger generations learning and reclaiming their history on both an individual and a more macro level?
It’s extremely valuable, for everybody. And particularly young people who are often not exposed in formal education to this history. From elementary school through grad school, most kids aren’t required to learn more than a sentence or two about the fact that lynchings happened. And so young people in particular are farther removed from history and so what it means is that they are missing information for themselves about who they are. I’m not just talking about African-Americans and black and brown folks, which is really important, but also for white students and white youth in addition to folks who are immigrants to the country or first-generation. What it means is that they can better understand what’s going on around them right now, the residue of that history, because they are on a continuum that connects them to the past. We often like to think that we’re walled off from history, but there is no such wall. So all of those things that are unresolved in history, that are unreconciled, are showing up now. And it’s really important to understand how the terrorism of lynching violence; how it has evolved today.
Do you see some parallels in your different bodies of work relating to cultivating a sense of identity and home while coming to terms with sources of trauma within the black community?
The parallels to my work are that I’m very interested in the stories of black and brown folks, and stories in the South. And although those stories are fraught with trauma, they are also deeply entrenched with love and a connection to the community. And there has been a long history in the South of progressive activism. We’ve had to face issues of racial terrorism and racism in ways that are much more urgent in the South than in other parts of the country, and there are certainly issues all over but we have had a long history of activism and of resistance coming out of a sense of love for our communities and for ourselves which is very much a part of my work.
What are some challenges you have encountered in the midst of developing your projects?
I tend to take on huge challenges. And I tend to look at subjects that are weighty and that are very complex. And for Always in Season in particular, the biggest challenge was around structuring the film. I never wanted to tell the story of-for example, I could’ve told a story about the reenactments and it could’ve been a very interesting take on this quirky and unusual event that happens - or I could’ve told the story about what was going on in Bladenboro. But it’s been really important for me to give context, because that doesn’t happen often enough in mainstream media. That’s the whole point of making a film about these communities; it gives context so that you better understand what is going on in Bladenboro and you understand it from the perspective of someone who is African-American, who understands that there are connections historically that have been overlooked, stories that have been overlooked. Issues that have been inadequately addressed, that are resounding in communities beyond just one particular incident in one particular family. And so because it’s important for me to tackle stories in this way, that’s probably my biggest challenge, is how to do that in a way that’s succinct, and in a way that is really drawing the viewer in to have a really intimate understanding and connection to the folks that have been featured in the films.
You have an extensive background in journalism and film. What are some changes you’ve observed in the media landscape over the years and what insight have you gained into making powerful documentaries?
I feel that the media landscape has evolved in a number of ways. The biggest one is innovations in technology have made it possible for folks like me have access to equipment, and we have access to archives online. There aren’t the expenses of having to go for example to fly to the Smithsonian to gain access to photographs and archives. These barriers have broken down and what it means in a lot of ways is that the industry is becoming more equitable and you have more voices telling stories about the country that make the canon of films and stories and media, it makes it more equitable, it makes it more accurate. And so I think it’s really an exciting time in which there are fewer gatekeepers and fewer roadblocks for people like me and for other people who are really compelled to tell stories about their communities.
Were there any standout moments that you experienced while in the development process of your projects?
I came from a background in journalism, so I filmed news, sports, and weather for an NBC affiliate for years, did a lot of one-man-band reporting, taking an idea from concept to air over the course of a workday. And so what that meant is that I had a lot of interviews, and by the time I came to documentary film, I was adept at getting yes’s to interviews. It was surprising though, going into a lot of communities like Monroe, and Laurens, South Carolina, which was another place where I filmed where people were so reluctant to open up about lynchings that were generations past. The fact that people weren’t willing to talk about what a lot of people labeled as ancient history meant that there were still issues around the power dynamics that were still in place that made people reluctant to acknowledge them. So the silence around it is actually informative, it made me understand that there was still a lot at stake with acknowledging what’s going on in communities. I did get a lot of people to talk too. I filmed with Klansmen, I filmed with all kinds of folks throughout the community. Interestingly, the hardest thing was getting officials to talk. So for example, in Bladenboro, I approached the chief of police, medical examiner, coroner, the DA, and other sources in that area who are public servants. They all would not talk about the case. And to talk about it in the most general of ways, even. And so that was the most frustrating thing for me it was just a reminder as I filmed in communities across the country that these issues around racial violence and all of the related concerns around structural racism are still very much relevant and very much at play.
What happens after you’ve wrapped on a project and are on the road such as with Always in Season? Are you already in development with the next project?
I do both. And so I’m traveling now with the film, we just had a screening with the Jewish Community Center in Brooklyn, in Harlem, and Washington D.C. where I am now. And we’ve had about sixty festival screenings and theatrical screenings in 18 cities last year and I traveled with almost all of them, because from the beginning, it’s been really important for me to use the film for the dialogues that are really needed around this history. And so one of the benefits of spending two years in development is [obtaining] that clarity about who the audience is for this film I was thinking from the very beginning about how to connect with that audience and how do we get the film out so that we can have the conversations in communities that are really necessary as the first step towards justice and reconciliation. And so I am committed to doing that. The festival screenings and the theatrical screenings were important as the first step towards those conversations and so I was present at Q&A’s because I felt that was the opportunity to connect with audiences not just about the film and to answer those filmmaker type questions, which I think are great and are fun-but to start to engage audiences around these issues. Then impact and engagement are our focus right now. Our impact teach is launching our campaign next month and we’re planning deeper dialogues in which we focus on family members of the victims of lynching in communities around the country, and those victimized by other forms of racial violence to give everyone the opportunity to have the discussion and tell their stories, and also to look at what repair can be like. It’s really important for us to be pushing institutions to do the work that they’re charged to do, in ways that are equitable, but also for us to look at what we can do for each other.
What’s the best part about the next thing you’re doing?
One thing I'm excited about is that we’re preparing for the PBS broadcast of Always in Season on February 24th as part of this Independent season, and they’ve been so incredibly invested in and excited to get the film out. We just had our first community IL Pop-Up screening at Howard University and it was a dream come true getting to see folks engaged around the film in ways that I had envisioned before I even knew exactly what the film was going to be about. But I always knew that I wanted to be a partner, and Independent Lens specifically because of their commitment to community engagement. And so there’ll be tons of community engagement events going on, this year and hopefully years to come. At the same time I am developing three to five projects, depending on how you count them, right now. A couple of them are documentary series and one of them is a fiction film, which I’m really excited about. A horror film, and there are other documentary feature films are in my future.
Bring Always in Season to your campus + community: gooddocs.net/always-in-season