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.