THE ARTS 10.09.09
THE ARTS 10.09.09

People v. Leo Frank revisits Southern inhospitality

More than 90 years later, the Leo Frank case is still a touchy topic in the capital of the South. The ugly saga of the Jewish pencil factory superintendent who endured several miscarriages of justice is not a subject for polite conversation.

Leo Frank

“When I was doing research, the only resistance we got was from Jews of a certain generation in Atlanta,” veteran “Frontline” and “American Experience” writer-director-producer Ben Loeterman recalls on the phone from Boston. “And this was after receiving a major production grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which endows a certain Good Housekeeping seal of approval as being an important story to tell.”

Loeterman understood their reluctance, but he was not to be denied.

“What I love about history,” he says, “is our ability to learn from it and our obligation to look at it.”

In 1913, Frank (a New York transplant, which proved crucial) was arrested for the grisly murder of a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan, in the factory basement. He was convicted with the testimony of a well-coached witness, and sentenced to death. After two years in jail and 13 rejected appeals, the governor did his own investigation and commuted the sentence. But that was not the end of Frank’s suffering, and he was eventually kidnapped from prison and lynched by an angry mob.

Drawing on trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, Steve Olney’s 2003 book and contemporary interviews with descendants of many of the principal figures, Loeterman has crafted a calm, evenhanded and disturbing film that sweeps the dust off an uncomfortably relevant slice of American history. “The People v. Leo Frank” has its national broadcast Nov. 2 on PBS.

The JCC of San Francisco, the Anti-Defamation League and Humanity in Action will host a free screening Tuesday, Oct. 13, followed by a panel discussion moderated by Loeterman.

The filmmaker discovered that many Jewish families, including that of historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, moved out of Atlanta immediately after the nasty end to the Frank saga. Those who stayed craved a return to normalcy, and rarely, if ever, mentioned the dark period to their children. In fact, Atlanta native Alfred Uhry, whose great uncle  owned the factory where Frank worked and who later wrote a Broadway play based on the case, didn’t learn about Frank until he went off to college at Cornell.

“It was so painful, frankly, that it was swept under the rug and it was kept there tightly and successfully for generations,” Loeterman says. “[Windows] were broken and storefronts were painted — it was a mini Kristallnacht. That whole proud notion of being Southern and Confederates and Jews was called into question. Those three used to go along happily together.”

“The People v. Leo Frank” includes a mention of the case’s role in both fueling the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and focusing the efforts of the young ADL. But larger forces were involved, forces that go beyond the scope of the case and the film.

“There is a sense of Jewish mythology that attaches to the Leo Frank case,” Loeterman notes. “I didn’t want to overplay it. The film is a piece of journalism and history, not a piece of advocacy, and I didn’t want that confused.”

For example, Loeterman explains, the ADL was not founded as a result of the Leo Frank case. “It was started years before in Chicago as a kind of not terribly effective organization responding to the winds of change sweeping globally. What became clear [in my research] was that this nascent organization suddenly had a raison d’être, a lightning rod” in the Frank episode.

The descendants of the prosecutor and other key figures, meanwhile, visibly struggle in the film with the legacy they inherited.

Leo Frank, portrayed here by actor Will Janowitz, sits in prison following his murder conviction in “The People v. Leo Frank.” photos/courtesy of blpi inc.

“They were brave to speak on camera,” Loeterman says. “They were not easy interviews to get or to do. It seemed to me a moment of truth and reconciliation that made it the right moment to tell the story and the right moment to catch people when they’re vulnerable enough, and empowered enough, to talk about it.”

Loeterman was born in Los Angeles and moved to Boston more than 20 years ago to work in public television. His son works in Rep. Barney Frank’s office, and his college-age daughter just moved to Israel.

His films typically spotlight an injustice, and he chuckles when he’s asked if “The People v. Leo Frank” is his first Jewish-themed film.

“That’s a Socratic question, or a Portnoyian question. I think in some way all my films are Jewish. We are who we are,” he says. “I made a film [‘The Triumph of Evil’] that was a major turning point in my career, about the genocide in Rwanda, which began with footage of Elie Wiesel and Bill Clinton lighting the torch at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.”

He pauses, and adds, “If you work in the area of social justice and human rights, how can that not touch you as a Jew?”

“The People v. Leo Frank”
screens at 6:30 p.m., with a reception at 6 p.m., Tuesday,

Oct. 13 at the JCC of San Francisco, 3200 California St., S.F. Tickets are free, but reservations are required by calling the JCC box office at (415) 292-1233.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.