Lynching Postcards: a poignant documentary on the confrontation with history | Documentary films
VSHristine Turner remembers one of the first lynching postcards she ever saw – but it’s not the horrific burned corpse of Will Stanley in Temple, Texas, in 1915 pictured on the front that marked the most. It was the creepy note handwritten on the back: “This is the BBQ we had last night,” it read, ending with the signature, “your son, Joe.”
“It was the thing that was etched in my mind that I will never forget,” says the Brooklyn-based filmmaker. “There was such a casual nature in the postcard. This young man shared with his parents something in which he participated and was proud of. It was this feeling that it was almost a normal activity to participate in that was most unsettling.
Turner’s documentary short Lynching Postcards: Token of a Great Day unveils a treasure trove of 19th and 20th century souvenir postcards commemorating the lynchings of African Americans, exposing another unsung side to the vile and continuing history of racism in America. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, more than 4,400 racial terror lynchings took place in the United States between Reconstruction and World War II, and as the film shows, many were staged by white mobs as public events. similar to carnivals or picnics.
The film, released late last year and shortlisted for this year’s Best Documentary Short Oscar, comes at the right time: last week, both houses of Congress overwhelmingly passed a draft landmark law that would make lynching a hate crime punishable by up to 30 years in prison. . Passage of the bill – named after Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black man who in 1955 was murdered in Mississippi – followed more than a century of stalled attempts.
Turner, who began working on the short after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, first discovered the postcards 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 less explored and underexplored stories from the past and present,” says Turner, who also directed 2013’s Homegoings, an acclaimed feature about African-American funeral traditions. “I knew it would make a really powerful story and be something a lot of people wouldn’t know.”
Lynching Postcards, in its depiction of violence, draws the delicate line between unwavering and gratuitous, and Turner admits it’s a difficult, albeit necessary, watch: “It’s not a feel-good film. The images are so hard to watch, but to understand the present moment, we have to wrestle with our history and we have to face the ugly parts.
It’s undoubtedly a dark subject, but Turner was determined to tell a story of black resistance as well: Black activists like those in the NAACP used the postcards to mount an awareness campaign showing the horrors of lynching to the world. “I didn’t just want to do another movie about black victimization,” she says firmly. “Anti-lynching activists have reversed the original intent of the postcards, transforming them and using them as evidence to end the practice of lynching. These 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 Till, whose funeral images sparked the civil rights movement, to Eric Garner more recently.
The process of viewing dozens of heartbreaking postcards — many from the collections of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta as well as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — was not a easy task. “I probably should have meditated or something,” Turner laughs. She relied on discussions with colleagues and friends “who helped me remember why I was doing it in these difficult and consuming times”. (And as the mother of a two-year-old, she was keen to keep him away from disturbing pictures on his desk.)
The subject of lynching has received more attention in recent years, with the 2018 opening of the National Peace and Justice Memorial and Howardena Pindell’s Rope/Fire/Water video in 2020. But Turner refuses to say that it’s a cultural moment: “The question is who are the people who are most receptive to hearing these stories,” she says. “Because of our national race awareness, many people are more open to receiving these stories than they otherwise would have been. But we have yet to pass a federal anti-lynching bill, and there is still a huge movement to completely erase our history with this attack on critical race theory. It’s one step forward, two steps back.
But the filmmaker insists on the parallels between the story of Lynching Postcards and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, for example. “There are a lot of what people call modern lynchings that may cause some people to take our lynching history more seriously,” she says.
In terms of audience reactions, “a lot of people are horrified by the footage and don’t know the story at all and say they can’t believe it happened,” Turner said. “And they refer not only to the postcards, but to the public aspect of so many of these lynchings. We tend to think of these lynchings as more private matters or spontaneous events where a group of men rush into the woods. These were planned events, with food and concessions. You bring your kids and maybe travel far to attend. And it’s surprising to people.
While many black viewers told Turner they were unaware of these objects, others may know them too well. “The postcards were memories and keepsakes of pride for white people, but they also served as a message, a warning sign, for black people. They were a proclamation, a way to enforce white supremacy and keep black people in their place. So black people who lived in those communities where lynchings had taken place and where those postcards had been created would be well aware of the story.
Ultimately, she hopes the film will spark reflection on the country’s history, echoing the film’s chilling final words taken from the postcard of someone who witnessed a lynching and asked for the opinion of the recipient about it: “I don’t care, do you?”
“It was me speaking to the audience,” Turner says. “I throw that question back to the viewers.”