Sundance: ‘Always in Season’ Explores the Horror of Lynching, Both Past and Present

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Sundance: ‘Always in Season’ Explores the Horror of Lynching, Both Past and Present

Claudia Lacy in a still from 'Always In Season,' directed by Jacqueline Olive. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Claudia Lacy in a still from 'Always In Season,' directed by Jacqueline Olive. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Claudia Lacy in a still from 'Always In Season,' directed by Jacqueline Olive. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Claudia Lacy in a still from 'Always In Season,' directed by Jacqueline Olive. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

By Josh Petersen

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On Aug. 29, 2014, Lennon Lacy, a black teenager living in the small town of Bladenboro, North Carolina, was found dead, hanging from a swing set. He was just 17 years old. Local police quickly ruled his death a suicide, but Lacy’s mother Claudia and his brother Pierre were immediately suspicious — Lacy had no indication of suicidal ideation, and the circumstances of his death was alarmingly similar to historical examples of lynching throughout the South. Quickly, the incident exposed divides between law enforcement and the community of white and black residents that they are bound to protect.

This horrifying story is the anchor of Jacqueline Olive’s sobering new documentary “Always in Season,” which premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. As part of a ten-year project, Olive conducted interviews with Claudia, Pierre, Lacy’s loved ones and other members of the community. Though Olive’s work is deeply engaged with some of the most horrifying and difficult aspects of American racial politics, her perspective is remarkably even-handed. Instead of offering easy answers, Olive brings light to a misrepresented issue without losing the individual story of Lacy and his family. The most moving parts of “Always in Season” focus on Claudia, who is left to both grieve the loss of her son and fight for justice in a system that continues to fail vulnerable black men.

Jacqueline Olive, director of “Always in Season.” Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Olive weaves Lacy’s story with two other narratives. She follows a group of actors who stage an annual lynching reenactment in Monroe, Georgia, the site of the Moore’s Ford Lynching. In 1946, two couples, including one pregnant woman, were publicly lynched — in 2017, the FBI closed the case without finding a perpetrator. Olive also investigates the larger history of lynching in the United States, consulting experts and historians on the subject. In these sections, she specifically focuses on the lynching of Claude Neal in 1934.

These stories are in constant conversation with each other, and the structure puts Lacy’s specific story in a necessary cultural context. However, the sheer amount of material threatens to dull the effectiveness of “Always In Season.” All three subjects could easily fill its own film, and sometimes the treatment of the material becomes scattered. The lynching reenactments are particularly rich material to work with, and Olive conducts fascinating interviews with the performers, including some children of Ku Klux Klan members who now participate in the reenactments as a sort of reckoning with their family’s past. With a little more time, this information could have more room to breathe, and Olive could have more deeply examined the motivations behind these events. A recent boom of nonfiction podcasts have reported on a single story over many episodes, and perhaps the information “Always in Season” would have benefitted from a similarly granular approach.

Still, “Always in Season” is an impressive feat of documentary filmmaking. Though its content, including graphic photographs of historical lynching victims, can be extremely difficult to watch, the film is still essential viewing, especially for anyone privileged enough to believe that this kind of racial violence is a relic of the past. “Always in Season” argues that the history of lynching casts a shadow over both white and black communities, perpetuating a generational trauma that is never fully addressed. Films like this do the necessary work of confronting that trauma with empathy and candor.

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@JoshPetersen7