Screen­ing a Lynch­ing: The Leo Frank Case on Film and Television

Matthew H. Bernstein
  • Review
By – September 16, 2011

Bern­stein exam­ines how the Leo Frank case was treat­ed in four dif­fer­ent screen pro­duc­tions: the 1936 film Mur­der in Harlem by the African-Amer­i­can auteur Oscar Micheaux; the 1937 Warn­er Broth­ers fea­ture They Won’t For­get; a 1964 episode of the TV series Pro­files in Courage; and the 1988 NBC minis­eries The Mur­der of Mary Pha­gan.

While Bernstein’s dis­cus­sions of the four pro­duc­tions are valu­able and inter­est­ing, as a whole the study falls short, most­ly because of the lim­it­ed and dis­parate nature of the mate­r­i­al Bern­stein treats. Micheaux’s work took the basic facts of the Frank case as a frame­work on which to hang a whol­ly fic­tion­al sto­ry that exam­ined social issues large­ly unre­lat­ed to those in the actu­al Frank case. They Won’t For­get was a pow­er­ful but sim­i­lar­ly fic­tion­al­ized Hol­ly­wood treat­ment of the case that also soft-ped­aled sig­nif­i­cant issues (for exam­ple, in nei­ther of these films was the Frank char­ac­ter depict­ed as Jew­ish). The Pro­files in Courage episode focused almost exclu­sive­ly on the Geor­gia gov­er­nor whose com­mu­ta­tion of Frank’s death sen­tence pre­cip­i­tat­ed his lynch­ing. Only The Mur­der of Mary Pha­gan aimed at a com­pre­hen­sive treat­ment of the case.

A study of how the Frank case has been treat­ed by jour­nal­ists, his­to­ri­ans, and pur­vey­ors of pop­u­lar cul­ture would be a fas­ci­nat­ing piece of social and cul­tur­al his­to­ry, but choos­ing to exam­ine any phe­nom­e­non through a win­dow as nar­row as this nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­its how much light may be shed on it.

Bar­bara Bietz is a free­lance writer and children’s book review­er. She is cur­rent­ly a mem­ber of the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award Com­mit­tee. Bar­bara is the author of the mid­dle grade book, Like a Mac­cabee. She has a blog ded­i­cat­ed to Jew­ish books for chil­dren at www​.Bar​baraB​Book​Blog​.Blogspot​.com.

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