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Mobs in picture

An overview of American films about lynching where it became an organised practice for two centuries

Mobs in picture

When Secunder Kermani made a documentary for the BBC about the lynching of Mashal Khan in Mardan, it was a daring act. Mashal Khan: Murder on Campus is a chilling recounting of the events that led to the lynching. The interviews of Mashal’s family members are moving, you feel as if you have lost a member of your own family.

The origin of word ‘lynch’ is disputed. Some attribute it to Charles Lynch (1736-96), a Virginia justice of peace who presided over extralegal trials of Tories during the American War of Independence.

Others find a connection with William Lynch (1742-1820) who presided over similar trials. Whatever the origin, lynching now means a killing of one or more persons by a group of accusers who take it upon themselves to punish without a proper trial. Though lynching has been noted in almost all societies, in the United States of America it became an organised practice for at least two hundred years from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th. Perhaps that is the reason we find more films about lynching coming from America than from any other country.

Interestingly, the first film that touched upon this subject—TheBirth of a Nation (1915)—glorified the violence committed by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) that was primarily responsible for most of the thousands of lynching crimes in America. That was the time in American history when African-Americans were trying to gain their basic human rights thanks to the end to slavery after the Civil War. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most impressive piece of literature that was being widely read and staged as a play. Opposing equality to blacks, there were intellectuals, politicians, priests, school teachers, and university professors, what to talk of the common whites.

In Fury, the protagonist of the film remarks: “The mob doesn’t think. It has no mind of its own.”

The Birth of a Nation instigated an increasing number of lynching crimes in the early 20th-century America, encouraged by three highly talented people: D W Griffith, Thomas Dixon, and Woodrow Wilson. Thomas Dixon was a priest annoyed at the success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin with its exposure of white brutality and the message of racial equality. Dixon responded with a novel, The Clansman (1905), which became the basis for The Birth of a Nation. The book was vicious in its depiction of black people. Griffith, the director, was equally racist and Wilson was the president of America who approved of the novel and the film, granting it the much-needed legitimacy.Movie Poster For 'The Birth Of A Nation'

Wilson had a private showing of the film in the White House. The film was sheer propaganda against black people and justified violence against them including lynching. The message of the film is that black people do such harmful acts to white people — especially to white women — that any violence is justified to teach these sub-human blacks a lesson. The white audiences were ecstatic and reviewers were all praise for projecting a ‘true’ picture.

As a response to the racism of The Birth of a Nation, the first African-American director to produce a feature-length film was Oscar Micheaux. His film, Within Our Gates (1920), for the first time showed lynching as a hate crime and not as a justified punishment projected by The Birth of a Nation.

The lynching in America was not focused on the black Americans alone, it also targeted Jews. For example, They Won’t Forget (1937) directed by Mervyn LeRoy was loosely based on true events about Leo Frank who was lynched on charges of murdering a young girl. The film exposes politically ambitious attorneys, unscrupulous journalists and regional prejudices, and the role they played in such lynching.

The Murder of Mary Phagan (1988) is a miniseries about the same events in 1913in Atlanta and exposes how the community reacted by lynching a Jew without any definitive evidence. Starring Jack Lemmon and Richard Jordan, the film shows the Jew being convicted and sentenced to hang but the governor suspects that Frank was targeted by public desire for revenge. Twenty years after filming The Murder of Mary Phagan, these events were reenacted in another brilliant docudramaPeople vs Leo frank (2009). This exposes how the police quickly decides that Frank should be held responsible. From 1913 to 1915 this murder and trial gained worldwide notoriety.

After WWI, many black Americans returned from Europe to find that the liberty they were fighting for in faraway lands, was still elusive in their own country. The success of The Birth of a Nation had precipitated more lynching. Rosewood (1997) is a film about postwar lynching crimes. It is dramatisation of a 1923 lynch mob attack on an entire African American community in Florida.  Director of Rosewood, John Singleton, had earlier written the script of Boyz n the Hood (1991) but under his direction Rosewood crossed many milestones of cinema about lynching.

Apart from the blacks and Jews, even whites became the target of lynching crimes if they became suspect of a crime. The Vienna-born director, Fritz Lang, five years after producing his masterpiece M (1931) directed Fury (1936) that showed attempted lynching of a white man who was wrongly accused of kidnapping.

Spencer Tracy plays the victim and gives an outstanding performance. Tracy received Oscars for best actor in two consecutive years in 1938 and 1939 for his roles in Captains Courageous and Boys Town. In Fury, a lynch mob burns down a jail in which the accused is held as a suspect. The story of Fury is based on a 1933 lynching in San Jose, California. The original event was recorded on a newsreel footage and became the basis of the film. In one of the dialogues in the film, the protagonist of the film remarks: “The mob doesn’t think. It has no mind of its own.”

A similar white-victim story is portrayed in the Academy Award-nominated movie starring Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, and Anthony Quinn — who was still in his twenties. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) based on Tilburg Clark’s 1940 novel revolves around two drifters drawn into a posse formed to find the murderer of a local man. Three innocent cattle-rustlers were lynched by the posse without solid incriminating evidence. The Ox-Bow Incident takes place in Nevada in 1885 when the men sleeping around a campfire are found to have cattle for which they don’t have a receipt. movieposter

No one believes their protestations and the mob decides that the men are to hang. In a chilling finale to the movie, Henry Fonda reads to the lynch mob a last-wish letter written by one of the accused to his wife. This movie is sure to turn you to tears in its last 15 minutes.

Then we come to William Faulkner, a Nobel laureate American writer who specifically focused on issues of the American south. His novel, Intruder in the Dust, was made into an excellent movie in 1949 by Clarence Brown—the director of Anna Karenina(1935) and National Velvet (1944).

Shot on location in Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, the film broke new ground in its depiction of blacks on screen. A black farmer Lucas is accused of murdering a white man and the mob wants to lynch him. A white spinster puts her own life in danger trying to prevent the lynching.

But, perhaps the best of them all is the 1988 film, Mississippi Burning, set in 1964 and directed by Alan Parker about 1960s race crimes. Gene Hackman and William Dafoe play two FBI agents who are trying to locate three civil-rights activists who have disappeared.

Ultimately the activists are found murdered. There is a conspiracy of silence in the town where segregation divides black and white people. Though Mississippi Burning has been criticized for showing blacks as passive witnesses, the film has a gripping screenplay and outstanding direction and acting.

An English/Persian movie, The Stoning of Soraya M. (2008) is also worth mentioning. Directed by Cyrus Nowrasteh, it is the story of an Iranian woman who is lynched by the mob after her abusive husband accuses her of adultery in a remote Iranian village.

The story is reported by a journalist who happens to pass by and is informed about the lynching by an aunt of the accused. The scenes where the mob lynches the innocent woman by stoning are so realistically filmed, they move your heart to throw up.

Director Spike Lee has also made a remarkable movie about lynching by burning — 4 Little Girls (1997). A Lynching in Marion (1995) is a film about an African-American, James Cameron, who witnessed his friends being lynched but himself survived it at the age of 16. An Outrage (2016) is a documentary film about lynching in the American South. It was filmed on location at lynching sites in six states of America. Ida B. Wells: A Passion for Justice (1989) is another award-winning film by William Greaves that documents the dramatic life of the anti-lynching crusader, Ida.

One would like to conclude this article by reproducing some lines from the letter written by an innocent accused before he is lynched in The Ox-Bow Incident.

 “A man just naturally can’t take the law into his own hands and kill people without hurting everybody in the world, because then he is just not breaking one law but all laws. Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It is everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity. There can’t be any such thing as civilization unless people have a conscience, because if people touch God anywhere, where is it except through their conscience? And what is anybody’s conscience except a little piece of the conscience of all men that ever lived?”

Dr Naazir Mahmood

Naazir Mahmood
The writer has been associated with the education sector since 1990 as teacher, teacher educator, project manager, monitor and evaluator.

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