Two things can both be true at once: White nationalism pervades the Trump era (from marches to mass shootings to the White House). And: We’re in a period of atoning for America’s racist past.
That means reckoning with how these yesterdays ripple into the present — including in the form of the President’s gross new implication that racial violence is being aimed at him.
Consider the last few years alone. Ava DuVernay has revisited the corrosive afterlife of the Thirteenth Amendment and reframed the narrative around the “Exonerated Five.” The historian Timothy B. Tyson’s 2017 book contains the revelation that the claims of the woman connected to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till were false. Over the summer, Congress had a historic hearing on reparations. Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times has crafted a constellation of stories to help reconceptualize the legacy of America’s original sin of slavery.
Joining this set of excellent the-past-is-never-past work is Jacqueline Olive’s documentary, “Always in Season.” Running at a slim 89 minutes, the new movie, which won the Special Jury Award for Moral Urgency at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, offers viewers an unsparing look at a particular form of hatred that many may have assumed was a relic of the past but that continues to cast a heavy shadow over black people in America today: lynching.
Early on, “Always in Season” mentions an especially horrendous chapter in American history: the Moore’s Ford lynching. In 1946, a group of at least a dozen armed white men stopped, beat, and repeatedly shot point-blank two black couples who had been driving near Moore’s Ford Bridge, several dozen miles outside Atlanta, Georgia. While it received national attention — and sparked an FBI investigation — the quadruple homicide has never been solved.
It’s this theme of communal racial terrorism that connects the 1946 lynching to the present — that stalks it. The spine of Olive’s movie is the death of Lennon Lacy, a black 17-year-old who, in 2014, was found hanging from a swing set in a trailer park in Bladenboro, North Carolina. The police ruled the death a suicide; the FBI agreed that there were no signs of foul play or a hate crime.
But the boy’s family wasn’t convinced, seeing — as the movie does, too — something else in the body that had been strung up for the world to see.
“It looked like it was a display, like it was a message, like it was a back-in-the-day lynching,” Lacy’s brother says in “Always in Season.”
As Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, explains in the movie, what makes lynching unique is what it communicates.
“Those who are involved in the lynching perceive themselves as having the right to do this,” she says. “That’s why it’s most often done openly and, notoriously, with the participation of average people. Not just to punish the individual person, but (to serve as) a symbol, as a sign to the larger community — both the white community and the black community. Lynching was a message crime.”
If those broad sentiments — assumed power, protected whiteness, spectatorship — seem at all familiar, it’s because there’ve been echoes of them as recently as this year.
“To watch raucous crowds of (mostly) white Americans unite in frenzied hatred of a black woman — to watch them cast her as a cancer on the body politic and a threat to a racialized social order — is to see the worst of our past play out in modern form,” The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie wrote in July of a mob mentality at a Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina.
The attendees had slung the insult “send her back” at Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota representative and Muslim Democrat who for months has been a target of President Donald Trump.
Bouie continued: “We shouldn’t conflate the past with the present, but we should also be aware of ideas and experiences that persist through time.”
In fitting the hazy death of Lacy into America’s lineage of lynching — of telegraphing who’s an insider and who’s an intruder — Olive similarly insists that we, as the viewers, do something that shouldn’t feel so radical in 2019: be honest about our country’s history and its bearing on today. (Notably, in February, the Senate passed, for a second time, an anti-lynching bill, in hopes of finally addressing the decades-long terror campaign against black Americans.)
Despite the weight that attends this historical reappraisal, there’s something comforting about it, too. The scope of “Always in Season” — how it resists the mercuriality of memory — is its own kind of salve, imposing justice on a country that believes itself to be better than it is.