Thursday, March 23

Lynching Postcards: a harrowing documentary about confronting history | Documentary films

Christine Turner remembers one of the first lynching postcards she ever saw – but it wasn’t the horrific burnt corpse of Will Stanley in Temple, Texas, in 1915 depicted on the front that stayed with her most. It was the chilling note handwritten on her back: “This is the barbecue we had last night,” it reads, ending with the sign-off, “your son, Joe.”

“That was the thing that was seared in my mind and that I’ll never forget,” says the Brooklyn-based film-maker. “There was such a casual nature about the postcard. This young man was sharing with his parents something that he took part in that he was proud of. It’s that sense that this is almost a normal activity to partake in that was most disturbing.”

Turner’s documentary short Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day uncovers a sobering trove of 19th- and 20th-century souvenir postcards commemorating lynchings of African Americans, exposing yet another little-known facet of the vile, ongoing history of racism in America. More than 4,400 racial-terror lynchings occurred in the US between Reconstruction and the second world war, according to the Equal Justice Initiativeand as the film demonstrates, many were staged by white mobs as public events akin to carnivals or picnics.

The film, released late last year and shortlisted for this year’s best documentary short Oscar, is a timely one: just last week the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a historic bill that would make lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. The passage of the bill – named for Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old who in 1955 was murdered in Mississippi – followed more than a century of stalled attempts.

Turner, who began work on the short following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, had come across the postcards first around the release of James Allen’s 1999 book Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America and later while working as an archival researcher on documentaries like Amend, released by Netflix last year. “I’m interested in telling unexpected or lesser- and under-explored stories of the past and the present,” says Turner, who also directed 2013’s Homegoings, an acclaimed feature about African American funeral traditions. “I knew that this would make for a really powerful story and be something a lot of people wouldn’t be familiar with.”

Lynching Postcards, in its depiction of violence, treads the delicate line between unflinching and gratuitous, and Turner admits it’s a challenging watch, albeit a necessary one: “It’s not a feelgood movie. The images are so difficult to look at, but in order to understand the present moment, we have to grapple with our history, and we have to confront the ugly parts.”

It’s undoubtedly a dark topic, but Turner was determined to also tell a story of Black resistance: Black activists like those at the NAACP used the postcards to mount an awareness campaign showing the horrors of lynching to the world. “I didn’t want to simply make another film about black victimization,” she says firmly. “Anti-lynching activists subverted the postcards’ original intent, transforming and utilizing them as evidence to end the practice of lynching. Those stories of black resistance often get lost in our history.” Photography has long been a powerful tool for exposing injustice, she adds; think of Emmett Tillthe images from whose funeral sparked the civil rights movement, up through Eric Garner in more recent times.

The process of viewing dozens of harrowing postcards – many drawn from the collections of Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture – was no easy task. “I should have probably been meditating on something,” Turner laughs. She relied on discussions with colleagues and friends “that helped remind myself why I was doing it in those challenging, all-consuming moments”. (And as a mother of a two-year-old, she made a point to keep him away from the disturbing images on her desk of her.)

Christine Turner. Photograph: MTV

The subject of lynching has received more attention in recent years, with the 2018 opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and Howardena Pindell’s 2020 video Rope/Fire/Water. But Turner declines to say that it’s having a cultural moment: “The question is which people are more receptive to hearing these stories,” she says. “As a result of our national reckoning on race, many people are more open to receiving these histories than they otherwise would have been. But we’ve yet to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, and there is still a huge movement to erase our history altogether with this attack on critical race theory. It’s one step forward, two steps back.”

But the film-maker emphasizes the parallels between the story of Lynching Postcards and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, for example. “There are many what people refer to as modern-day lynchings that may cause some people to take our history of lynching more seriously,” she says.

In terms of audience reactions, “a lot of people are horrified by the imagery and completely unfamiliar with the story and say that they can’t believe that this happened,” Turner says. “And they’re referring to not just the postcards but the public-spectacle aspect of so many of these lynchings. We tend to think that these lynchings are more private affairs or spontaneous events where a group of men runs into the woods. These were planned events, with food and concessions. You bring your kids and maybe travel from far to attend. And that’s surprising to people.”

While many Black viewers have told Turner they weren’t aware of these objects, others may know them all too well. “The postcards were mementoes and prideful souvenirs for white people, but they also served as a message, a warning sign, to Black people. They were a proclamation, a way to reinforce white supremacy and keep Black people in their place. So Black people who lived in these communities where lynchings had taken place and where these postcards were created would be well aware of the history.”

Ultimately she hopes the film prompts reflection on the country’s history, echoing the film’s final, chilling words taken from the postcard of someone who attended a lynching and asked the recipient’s opinion of it: “I don’t care, do you?”

“That was me speaking to the audience,” Turner says. “I’m throwing that question back at viewers.”

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