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  • Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television
  • Eitan Kensky
Screening a Lynching: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television, by Mathew H. Bernstein. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009. 352 pp. $24.95.

At the center of Matthew Bernstein's richly detailed and fascinating study of the screen representations of the Leo Frank saga is the 1915 Supreme Court case Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, which ruled that first amendment protections did not extend to motion pictures, directly leading to the creation of censorship boards and, later, the production code. But while the substance and subject of censorship is often important in Bernstein's reading of the Frank dramatizations (Bernstein previously edited an invaluable book on the topic), Screening's narrative is more concerned with [End Page 174] exploring the intellectual concepts surrounding the Court's decision, pursuing questions of how narrative films communicate ideas and engage with and embellish historical events.

Following Hayden White and other critics of historical writing, Bernstein looks at the filmmaker as an historian whose impressions of the case shape and are shaped by the unique circumstances of a film's production: "What each screen version retains, discards, alters, and amplifies reflects each storyteller's interpretation of the case and simultaneously attests to the constraints of budget, censorship, and format that each creative team faced" (pp. 21-22). To that list need to be added the constraints of the historical moment since, as Bernstein details, each successive screen treatment builds off newly-uncovered evidence and changing moral and aesthetic values. Race, racism, and antisemitism are variously muted or emphasized depending on the filmmaker and contemporary politics, while viewers' expectations of plot resolution and the assignment of culpability determine the shape of the narrative. The studios stopped adapting Frank's story long before the Hollywood renaissance embraced ambiguity as a defining feature—much to the disservice of the nuanced source material where the evidence remains incapable of proving anything beyond a reasonable doubt. No one ever gets to say, "Forget it, Jake; it's Atlanta," in any of the Frank adaptations, though that's what the audience needs to hear.

In 1915, Leo Frank, a Jew, was lynched by an organized mob for a murder he likely did not commit after the Governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. As Bernstein writes, "Considering the . . . case's sensational details; its unanswered questions; and the troubling issues of race, class, sectional and religious prejudice it raises, filmmakers' interest is not surprising" (p. 21). Bernstein devotes a chapter to each screen adaptation, providing detailed analyses of the content and full production histories. Chapter One covers Oscar Micheaux's Murder in Harlem (1936), the only source produced from the African American perspective. Despite fictionalizing the details, the film "reflects contemporary black newspapers' consensus that the murder of Mary Phagan was in both inspiration and execution entirely white people's business" (p. 56), while still treating the racial elements with a complexity unmatched by any white-produced dramatization before the late 1980s. The Micheaux chapter is also the only one to focus on a single creative persona; the others instead take the finished dramatization as the result of collaboration between the director, technical and creative staff, and actors. Chapter Two, on They Won't Forget (1937), exemplifies this approach, capturing the complex interplay of multiple creators pushing against the limits of the production code and the narrative demands of a Studio "message" movie. This chapter is the book's most compelling, [End Page 175] brilliantly illustrating how thematic and visual restrictions imposed on filmmakers could artistically improve the final product.

Chapters Three and Four review television: the Profiles in Courage episode "John M. Slaton," (1964) and the miniseries The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988). Chapter Three details how the circumstances of the case were adapted to fit the ideals of Kennedy-era America, while the Mary Phagan chapter explores "the full treatment": big-budget adaptations featuring unparalleled technical realism, determined to capture the historical forces affecting the case. The appearance of verisimilitude, however, had the adverse effect of heightening the fictionality of historical adaptations. The miniseries notably staged Governor Slaton's...


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pp. 174-177
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