America's Other Favorite Pastime
Other than D.W. Griffith's infamous 1915 Birth Of A Nation, it's not easy to find pro-lynching movies. It seems the genre of lynching movies exists only to campaign against America's other favorite pastime (and thereby preserve the state's monopoly on murder):
- Fritz Lang's 1936 Fury
- Mervyn LeRoy's 1937 They Won't Forget
- Henry Fonda in 1943 The Ox-Bow Incident
- Roger Corman's 1962 The Intruder
- Clint Eastwood in 1968 Hang 'Em High
The closest approximation to a pro-lynching message may be the anti anti-lynching message of a 1958 episode of the Gunsmoke TV series, "Lynching Man". The show portrays an anti-lynching crusader as a psycho who responds to a lynching by lynching, then ends up shot dead by the sheriff - who never intended to investigate the original lynching, and was content to use it as an excuse to brood in some beers, as his girl confirms the presumed guilt of the victim ("He must be a horse thief". "He must be, or else they wouldn't have lynched him"). Message: stay away from zealous reformers - they may be homicidal psychos.
Yet, despite the lack of inspiring tales of noble lynchings, the presence of so many films over the years protesting lynching suggests that lynching still gets a lot of love. This film, one of the few surviving pro-lynching movies, provides an opportunity to reflect on America's fetish for nooses.
Some Academic Views
The first question that may come to mind might be: "Why watch a lynching film?".
Amy Louise Wood's Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 offers some possibilities:
Films that reproduced extralegal lynchings...allowed viewers to witness a vengeance against crime and the restoration of social—and
racial—order. Most early lynching films tended to be fictionalized reenactments of western “frontier” or southern-style vigilantism,
produced as stock “attraction” scenes that could appeal to adventure-seeking northern and urban audiences... Southern audiences would
presumably not have watched these films with distanced curiosity. Rather, they would have brought their own experiences with lynching,
either as defenders or as witnesses, if not participants, to bear on their spectatorship of these films...Indeed, lynching films might
have introduced first- and second-generation immigrants to a “typical” American phenomenon...Lynching films, even those representing
“frontier scenes,” offered southern viewers more orderly and more sanitized renderings of mass, spectacle lynchings, renderings that
could be repeated again and again...
As with a lynching photograph, in a film the condemned is put to death, only to be resurrected and murdered again on each viewing...
By 1904, filmmakers were producing short narrative films that used multiple shots and continuity editing to present a story unfolding over time...spectacular melodramas of crime and punishment. More directly than other lynching and execution films, these pictures visually reenacted prolynching narratives about brutish black men assaulting helpless white women and the determined, orderly mobs that exacted vengeance. In this respect, despite their spectacular excess, they projected onto lynching a degree of moral clarity and restraint.
This core link between lynching and American culture that is manifested in film can be probed even deeper.
In The American Chase Film and the Specter of Lynching
Jan Olsson argues:
Lynching, I maintain, is part of the operative force of chase films in the American context. Screen chasing and mob formation –
and sometimes chasing is intertwined with legal or extra-legal tracking – cannot be separated from this culturally significant
quick-fix “justice” practice. Even if most American chase films stop at benign punishment, the prospect of stepping up the violence
a couple of notches always lurks underneath the proceedings. And some films, without qualms, instantaneously hit a lethal level.
Olson also reports that for some moviegoers the cinematic link between the chase and lynching was more than theoretical, as they were
treated to an early version of virtual reality morphing into reality:
To open a picture house for African Americans could in itself inspire a violent chase scenario, as it did in Fort Worth in 1911.
According to one report, the picture patrons were chased from the show by over a thousand whites on opening night. The house was wrecked
as “the mob began a systematic hunt for negroes.” In the process, “the rioters invaded every place where a negro was seen and if the
lucky darky was not fortunate enough to outrun his persecutors he was set upon and beaten.”
Perhaps that report provides a "natural selection" explanation of another American phenomenon: the Olympic success of African-American sprinters.