Review: ‘Always in Season’

Hot Docs 19

8 mins read

Always in Season
(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Jacqueline Olive
Programme: Special Presentations (International Premiere)

Director Jacqueline Olive asks if lynching still exists in the USA in her provocative documentary Always in Season, but the film awkwardly strangles itself by having one narrative thread too many. There’s a searing true crime saga to be found somewhere within her interrogation of the case of 17-year-old Lennon Lacy, whose death was ruled a suicide when he was found hanging on a swing set near his home in Bladenboro, North Carolina. However, while making the case that Lacy’s death was a modern day lynching and a continuation of anti-Black racism and violence, Always in Season loses focus on the tale at hand. The result is a film that moves, disturbs, shocks, and enrages, but with mixed results.

Always in Season explores the many mishandlings in the investigation into Lacy’s death as his mother, Claudia, offers compelling testimony that challenges any argument that her son exhibited the behaviour of a young man who planned to end his life. She relates his daily rituals and love for football, noting small details that suggested he had every hope for a bright future. As Olive follows Claudia through the details of the case and speaks with a lawyer from the NAACP representing the family’s demand of justice for Lennon, the doc reveals how blasé police work took little heed in documenting the crime scene and basically fudged a case for suicide instead of looking deeply into the death of a young Black man with obvious symbolic implications in the American South.

Looking deeply at Lacy’s death means looking deeply into the community, and Olive wants audiences to know that there are still questions that the USA is too afraid to ask itself. The doc situates Lacy’s death within the legacy of lynchings in America and argues that the practice continues despite the fact that some people (naïvely) consider the present a “post-race society.” As Always in Season tours through Bladenboro and peels back the folksy veneer that masks an underlying toxic racism, Olive weaves through select case histories in America’s past. The film is admirably confrontational as it shows audiences a catalogue of photographs and newspaper clippings that document the public ritual of Black deaths by brutal violence. The result is a parade of grotesquery as Olive chronicles a “greatest hits” style list of lynchings that led up to Lacy’s death.

One of them features Danny Glover in voiceover as he reads an invitation to a “Hanging Bee” that was published in a newspaper inviting whites from all around to gather, abduct, desecrate, and murder a Black man. The invitation, written in the cordial language with which one might entice guests to visit for cucumber sandwiches and ladyfingers, offers details that become more horrible when one considers that they were published in the open for all to see. Olive confronts this normalization of violence by intercutting Glover’s narration with archival texts of the NAACP responding to the invitation and alerting authorities, who naturally responded with the same indifference as the police who walked onto the scene of Lacy’s death.

Also included in the “the greatest hits of lynching” is one of the most disturbing sequences audiences may ever see. It’s a present-day video of four Black people being violently ejected from their cars at gunpoint and marched to the woods, where they’re then brutalized and shot multiple times. A baby is cut out of one of the victims and thrown to the ground. It’s a horrific sight that feels ripped out of the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter viral videos documenting the deaths of Black people by white cops. It turns out, however, that this scene is a dramatization. Olive looks at the annual re-enactment of the Moore’s Ford Lynchings in which four Black people were killed by a white mob at Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia.

This aspect of the film might be effective for some and fatally problematic for others. The doc lets various parties in the annual pageant discuss their need to keep their experience alive. In some cases, it’s a need to remind fellow Blacks of an ongoing history of violence and a need to continue to fight for equality. For others, it’s a need to atone for the sins of racist parents who were a part of the KKK. Other people in the village, however, think the past should remain in the past and that the country should look to the future. The film’s overemphasis on the Moore’s Ford Bridge re-enactment, and the sheer repetition of brutally stylized violence, feels more emotionally manipulative and exploitative than productive. One appreciates the film’s effort to speak to deeply rooted and pervasive violence in American society, but at some point the Moore’s Ford Lynching overwhelms the Lacy murder.

Always in Season ultimately loses sight of Lacy’s case while focusing too heavily on these historical cases. This is especially problematic in the doc’s scattershot depiction of the Lacy case, which introduces a major character, Lacy’s white thirtysomething girlfriend, a drug addict with highly dubious credibility and a living situation that included a violent racist at the time of Lacy’s death. This element of the case comes out of nowhere late in the game. As a result, the film’s investigation into Lacy’s death feels ironically lacking while chronicling the doubtless deficiencies into the police’s half-hearted inquiry.

Whatever loose ends the film struggles to tie together, however, one cannot deny that Olive hits the bull’s-eye in communicating the need to look more deeply into Lacy’s death and those of others like him. Flawed as it is, Always in Season is a brutally disturbing portrait of racism in the present-day USA.

Always in Season screens:
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 6:15 PM at Hart House
-Tues, Apr. 30 at 12:45 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, May 4 at 6:30 PM at Hart House

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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