Filmmaker Jacqueline Olive knows a good story when she sees it, and the documentarian always knows the right people to tell it, outfitting her feature directorial debut “Always in Season” with essential interview subjects who breathe emotion and insight into a tough subject. And yet Olive’s eye for a good story is clouded by her seeming desire to tell too many stories at once, as “Always in Season” clumsily moves between her central story — a horrifying death surrounded by strange circumstances — and a pair of related stories that never get the full treatment they deserve. Despite a strong start, one that puts the focus on the contentious hanging death of teenager Lennon Lacy, Olive’s choice to expand her narrative to include other stories about the historical horror of lynching in America never finds complete connections, a disjointed amalgam of important stories that upsets as much as it confuses.
The spine of Olive’s film is the Lacy story, and early investigational and emotional beats speak to the film’s greatest power: letting people tell their own stories. The 17-year-old high school football star was found hanging from a Bladenboro, North Carolina swingset in August 2014, just hours before a big game he had been preparing for and was excited to play in — his last known act before his death: posting an Instagram about the game. Lacy’s family never bought the official story that Lacy had killed himself, instead believing that he had been lynched, left publicly hanging as a message to the small town’s black community.
Olive’s interviews with Lacy’s family and friends are searching, never salacious, and her discussions with other (predominantly white) residents are low-key revelatory. While Lacy’s mother Claudia Lacy recounts the moment she learned her son was dead, moments later, the local newspaper editor wonders why the family can’t just accept Lacy’s death as a suicide. Before that, a Bladenboro historian muses that racism has never been part of his experience, oh, accept for the death of that local boy that some people thought might be a lynching. Give people the chance to talk, and they’ll say some crazy things, and Olive gave plenty of people that exact chance.
And there’s still more to explore in Bladenboro alone — an early segment dips into the local myth of the livestock-shredding “Beast,” popularly portrayed as a black cat who comes from the swamp, understandably discomfiting the local African-American population — but Olive continually swerves away from her main story to explore a pair of other related tales: the 1934 Florida lynching of Claude Neal and the 1946 lynching of two young black couples, which is recreated yearly in Monroe, Georgia.
Each story would make a fine film on its own (and Olive’s creative treatment of the Neal story, which is told using voiceover narration from producer Danny Glover and a series of unsettling photographs, highlight her skill at telling different stories in different ways), but pushing them together into one uneven tapestry sells each one short. The film’s last act makes that searingly clear, as Lacy’s story takes on new dimensions, complete with uneasy revelations and at least one major theory about the true nature of his death that is tossed out in voiceover and never backed up with any other information. It’s an egregious lapse in judgement, both on a storytelling level and a journalistic one.
While Olive’s apparent desire to layer together Lacy’s tragic story with historical stories of lynching and the way they impact current culture is understandable (and admirable), the trio of stories that make up “Always in Season” never fit together. The present and the past do blend — or, as one interview subject puts it succinctly: “this isn’t ancient history” — but Olive’s attempts to fold three uniquely wrenching stories into one wide-ranging feature only further highlights how hard it can be to bridge that gap.
“Always in Season” had its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.