Doc Star of the Month: Claudia Lacy, 'Always in Season'
Jacqueline Olive’s debut feature, Always in Season—its title a nod to the year-round racial terror that African-Americans, especially in the Deep South, historically have experienced—picked up the Special Jury Prize for Moral Urgency at this past Sundance Film Festival. Though the film explores the domestic terrorist act of lynching and its legacy through multiple angles—from sober, talking-head interviews to Monroe, Georgia’s harrowing, annual lynching reenactment— the beating heart of the film lies within one specific woman: Claudia Lacy.
Five years ago, Lacy—a native of Bladenboro, North Carolina, who had returned home to raise her teenage son after his older brother Pierre had left for college—was launched into an unthinkable nightmare. Her youngest child Lennon, a high school football star, was found hanging from a swing set in a park, his death immediately ruled a suicide. That Lennon had no history of depression, left no suicide note, and seemed to have injuries consistent with what one local mortician likened to those of a victim of a bar brawl, did not seem to faze law enforcement, which quickly closed the case.
Troublingly, to this day no one has been held responsible for the dubious investigation afforded this supposed suicide. And to this day Claudia Lacy continues to demand transparency from those in charge, her way of grieving while fighting for justice for her son. Which is why Documentary could think of no nonfiction protagonist more deserving of the role of September's “Doc Star of the Month.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: I can’t even imagine the pain that you have gone through—and continue to experience. What convinced you to share this tragedy with Jacqueline and a film crew?
CLAUDIA LACY: Number one was the lack of media attention to my son's story. Also, the way the authorities had quickly judged it was a suicide. To me, their investigation wasn't thorough enough. There were things that did not measure up to a suicide. There was a lack of procedure.
And also, because Jackie had talked to my son [Pierre] prior. When I agreed to speak to her, she let me know that her son was 17, and the type of work that she was doing. She said that she wanted to connect with a story that would allow her to see a closer-up, more modern way than people had looked at it [lynching] in the past—how it would affect someone.
Her documentaries had been about people who were descendants—not someone who immediately had had it happen to them. That was a way for my son's story to get told.
D: So she met with your son Pierre before she met with you?
CL: He talked to her over the phone. She had heard about my son's story. We started talking back and forth over the phone.
By her having a son who was my son's age at the time he passed and as another black mother, she said she couldn't even imagine the trauma that it had brought to my life. She just wanted to reach out to see what help she could give me.
D: Are there any scenes in the film that you might find particularly difficult to watch, but that you nevertheless believe are important?
CL: Just those graphic pictures of hangings in the past. Especially the one leading up to the end of the story. It was very hard to imagine that someone went through that. And then to see my son's story as a part of history being repeated. It’s just how far away and long ago it did happen, but how close it's still going on.
D: It gives us a story as opposed to some abstract historical concept. And I think that's what made your story so powerful as well—the fact that it’s a story, a real live, fresh-and-blood thing.
CL: It’s a part of life. It's not something someone made up. It was real. You can really relate to it.
D: Watching the scene in which you rally for justice for Lennon alongside the indomitable Reverend Barber made me wonder how someone deals with a personal loss transforming into a public cause. Do you embrace it? Resent it? Are you conflicted?
CL: You embrace it. I had to embrace it because Lennon was not only my son. He had friends. He lived in a community. Like I stated in the film, your neighborhood is an extension of your family. And when someone in that community gets hurt or goes through a death, when we lose a neighbor, we know about it. It affects us, it's a ripple effect. I mean, you have a private life, but you don't live alone. You go to school with these people, you go to church with these people. You interact, they see you every day.
D: So I guess by embracing it—is there a comfort in that?
CL: What happens is that a lot of people get to see how hard it is to deal with not getting the answers that you rightfully deserve. And for someone to really hear you—and understand what you say and letting them know what's going on. It's kind of hard, but I felt like I had to do it because of the quick judgment.
And I know my son. There was no evidence shown to me. I'm like, “Really? You expect me to believe that? Show me where his demeanor changed, or if he had voiced something about his demise to one of his friends. Someone who had dealt with him day to day.” But nothing was ever said to me.
D: So what do you hope to come from the documentary now, reaching a nationwide audience? A reopening of the investigation? The furthering of an honest reckoning with regards to race relations? All of the above?
CL: Definitely. I hope that it would have them take a closer look and go back and reopen it. Go over some of the things that were missed, that are shown in the documentary and brought to everyone's attention. I would hope that this would bring the authorities to want to look into it more.
And also, just allow people to have the conversation, to have them put pressure on the authorities to say that we as a collective community would like to have closure on this. There’s a need for our past to be talked about and brought to attention. Things that should not happen—things that did happen—history is still a part of our lives day to day.
D: Have you received any backlash for participating in the film? Unfortunately, I don’t think everyone in your community has supported you.
CL: Everybody here knows everybody. We've got one high school, one elementary, one middle school. How can you not be affected when your kid goes from kindergarten to first grade to middle school and high school? How can you not interact?
They retired his jersey at the high school. And yet, they didn't give me an invitation to the graduation. That was a part that wasn't shown or discussed in the film, but it happened.
D: But why would they not want you at the graduation?
CL: Well, I had inquired about it and was told that it was the school's call. They felt as though they’d done enough. They’d retired his jersey. And the only way I found out about them retiring his football jersey is because my niece is a graduate of that school. And when I inquired about that, the school said, "It's up to the student or the participant of the sport activity to notify family members."
D: Well, that actually gets to a larger point that I think the film was making. You have these communities that don’t want to talk about certain things, to wrestle with certain issues. They’d prefer if it would all just go away.
D: I’m just trying to wrap my head around how you can live in a situation like that. How do you deal with people, your neighbors, who would rather you just go away?
CL: That’s what they want me to do. But it's not their decision.
D: How do you deal with that, though?
CL: I have to because I have a right to live where I choose. I was born and raised there. And my thing is, because you don't like what has happened to my life, why should I leave because you're uncomfortable?
I sleep well at night. I don't feel threatened except when I realized there's still a murderer out here somewhere who knows what happened to my son. And when I got to that point, I said, You know what? If anything is going to happen to me, it's going to happen.
But for them to take away my freedom, to allow them to put me in a box and tell me you can’t…No, I'm not giving them the opportunity to take away my livelihood. That's what it would be if I ran away.
D: You have every right to live in your own home. Do they smile to your face and then disparage you behind your back, though? How does that work?
CL: It’s a lot of that. For instance, recently I just put balloons on his grave for his birthday. Three days later, I go back and they’re gone. I’d tied them to the little name plate that says Lennon Lacy—they showed it in the film.
D: And this has been going on for five years now, right? I can't even imagine having to live with that.
CL: It lets me know that the people who are responsible are still out there.
D: Has the documentary been shown to your community?
CL: No, because, like I said, she's taking it to the film festivals in each city and state where it’s been chosen. The closest to where I live was the one in Durham [Full Frame]. And the local media has not been notified, as far as where they're going to be showing it or whatever. Even when she won at Sundance, it was only mentioned as the film about the black teen who was found hanging. They didn’t even mention his name.
D: How did the Full Frame audience respond—specifically the North Carolinians?
CL: They were appalled, and they were shocked. And very appreciative for me sharing my story. And very sympathetic, and apologetic. They were like, “I'm so sorry you had to lose your baby, and how do you feel about his story being told?” It helps me to grieve and allows me to go forward. This is my healing process. And when the reenactment story is told, it makes people understand what happened to him.
Because, going through it, talking to Jackie, it was a process for me. It hurt. I was angry, I was mad and I was upset. I wanted to do something with all that energy but I didn't know what, how to channel it. And people ask me, How did I do it? I say that my faith has gotten me through it. If I didn't have that I would have lost my sanity. But me having that relationship with Christ—I can pray and know that there's comfort, because I can read my Bible and there are passages that allow you to release.
D: I’m a huge fan of Reverend Barber. He must be very helpful to you and your family as well. It must be comforting to have this national community embracing you.
CL: My church family has been supportive. The day before we had the justice march, I lost my job. Shortly after that, my church allowed me to start working there. They gave me a small salary to help me out. When they found out about me not having a job, people started donating small amounts to the church to make sure I was taken care of.
D: As vicious as small communities can be, they can also be really wonderful. Which makes me think that Jacqueline should really do a church screening or something like that down there.
CL: They’re working on how to go about bringing it to town halls to have a discussion. I had mentioned to her that I would like to do something like that before the opening, before it’s on PBS [Always in Season will air on Independent Lens in February 2020]. I would love if she could get a group of pastors to view it, and then have the discussion with their congregations to prepare them for the upcoming event that will be shown on TV.
D: That’s where the film is needed…People on the ground in their own communities need to make that difference. And I think that's why I was horrified by the lynching reenactments, yet felt they were important. It needs to hurt that bad. That’s how change happens.
CL: It damages our neighborhood collectively overall because small communities, they are like a family. In our community, there was a couple of kids that had cancer. You know how they have those little jars asking for donations for this person here? When they do that, a community comes together. They rally together to help each other out.
D: That's really beautiful. And I appreciate your explaining how having this tragedy become a public cause also brings you closer to your community.
CL: He was found in a public place, so it should be a public thing. They made it a public thing. He was displayed in that way.
D: It’s on everybody. It’s not just one person's burden to bear. It’s an entire community’s.
CL: I believe it's inherited to us. It’s our job as a community to make sure that justice is served because it was placed in a community in a community setting. The public is just as responsible—just like all of these lynchings that Jackie added to the film. We're all responsible for that.
Like they said, they see and they don't see. And they don't say anything about it, but you knew it was going on. But it's time to let that go now. Be responsible, be accountable.
D: I really hope that the documentary sparks some changes, whether it be reopening the investigation or even just having more people talk about things like this.
CL: The conversation will begin, and that's what really matters. Even though Lennon died, they'll always want to know, Did we do the right thing? And the documentary will be a constant reminder of what needs to be changed.
D: In the worst of circumstances you've admirably become a really strong grassroots advocate. I think too often people look to DC—and the coasts. I just don't see nationwide change leading from urban areas in a top-down approach.
CL: I agree. We can start small and go large. We’ve got to change our voting, start getting people to understand how it is to deal with things like this in a small community. This is an everyday thing. Somebody's got to be out there working day to day.
D: Let me wrap things up. Was there anything that I haven’t asked about with regards to the film, or anything that we didn't discuss that you'd like to mention?
CL: The only thing that I would like to bring to people's attention is that our kids need to be informed about their past. Our black children do not know the history. They are not allowed to see the graphics of what their ancestors had to endure because it's left out of history in schools. The graphics are very, very hard to see and to portray. In this documentary it shows all of that.
You need to understand that that's a part of history. That's a part of the sacrifice, what some of us have given up so you have the right to pursue your dreams, and your hopes, and your own explorations in life. Your contribution to society.
Always in Season, an IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund grantee, opens in theaters September 20 through Multitude Films.
Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She's served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, and has written for Salon, Bitch, The Rumpus and Hammer to Nail.