A documentary film about the history and legacy of lynching in the American South.
Interview with Co-Directors Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Lance Warren: This film emerged from work with middle and high school history teachers—and the activism of the Equal Justice Initiative.
For several years, we produced online graduate courses for history teachers, traveling the country to broadcast live lectures and discussions with historians. In these lectures, we found that lynching kept coming up—much more often than it had in our own educations, where it was a sidebar in American history. As we began to do our own research into lynching, we discovered that its history was far broader, more complex, and more central to American history than we had been taught.
Around the same time, the Equal Justice Initiative published a report documenting more lynchings than had ever been previously documented—more than 4,000. There was much press about these numbers, and we were riveted on the report. But we found ourselves wondering about the stories behind those numbers—stories that, we thought, could help people to wrap their heads around this history.
We try to use the understandable language of film to say something that’s often difficult to grasp: History can be hard to see, and we’re all implicated in the need to address and try to heal the harms of history. History ought to illuminate human dignity and suggest our own agency. Too often, it doesn’t. That’s something we’re trying to contribute through our work.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
Hannah Ayers: Lynching played a big role in shaping the nation we know today, yet most of us learn little about it in school. Almost every audience member we’ve talked to is surprised and shaken: surprised by the definition, the scope, and the scale of lynching, surprised by how unaware they were of this history, and shaken by the intergenerational effects and modern-day echoes of lynching. If you want to understand the historical context of Black Lives Matter, watch this film. If you want to understand how black journalists, activists, and community members have resisted racial violence for generations, watch this film.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
Lance: Think about any major social problem—something vast, with countless actors, and perhaps little apparent opportunity for ordinary people to make a noticeable difference. Problems like that beget apathy. But storytellers—especially, I think, filmmakers and novelists—can bring down to earth agonies that feel far out of reach. In making a film about the history and legacy of lynching, we sought to tell individual stories as a way of making clear the ground-level awfulness of this past, and the personal pain that persists as it remains largely outside of mainstream narratives about American history. We’re engaging with universal themes—injustice, trauma, legacy—but we’re talking about Kimberly, Thelma, Fostenia, Andre, Sonny, and Hattie.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
Hannah: When we began making the film, we envisioned that we’d highlight the story of one lynching and weave that together with interviews with historians. But after we learned more about the enormous scale and complexity of this history, we knew that one story couldn’t even begin to do this history justice. So we decided to expand it, identifying six sites of lynchings in six states where activists and descendants are working to remember the victims and honor their memory.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
Lance: We’re grateful for the wide and warm reception the film has received. Currently in the midst of a national tour extending to 70 stops in 27 states, we’re finding large, diverse audiences seriously engaging with the film’s stories and ideas. And several of our screenings have included film festivals where the film has won two awards: the festival-wide Audience Award at Indie Grits, and the Jury Award for Best Documentary Short at the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
Hannah: We’ve seen a question recur at screenings that has challenged us and proven productive. Though asked in different ways, some audience members—often people of color—essentially want to know “Where are the white people? How are white descendants of perpetrators dealing with this history?” We consciously decided to include only African American voices in our film because we felt that white perpetrators had already had their say, and we wanted to reveal truths that only people most proximate to this history can share. We still feel that strongly. But audience questions have also helped us to see that, while it’s critical to share the stories and perspectives of black people in telling this history, we can’t allow that to imply that it’s up to black people alone to recognize this history and determine what to do about it. We’re all implicated in this history; people of all backgrounds must come together to grapple with it and determine the best ways forward.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
Lance: We’re eager to share our vision for how social issue documentary films can lead to real change—something we address in question 9. This is deeply important to us for the history behind An Outrage, but it’s also the sort of work we’d love to see more of our fellow filmmakers embrace. While audience engagement isn’t a good fit for every film, we believe that social issue docs are especially rich with opportunities to transform concern into real and lasting change. We’d love to encourage more filmmakers to take up that effort.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Hannah: We’re looking for additional partners to help raise awareness of the film as a tool for community conversation and activism. We’ve partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program to make the film available along with a complementary curriculum they wrote to their network of 500,000 teachers — and their millions of students. And our film is freely available at thousands of universities and public libraries through the streaming service Kanopy. We’re grateful for those educational partners who will integrate this film into classrooms. We think the film also has a role to play to help spur community members to research, document, and publicly mark sites of lynchings — and we need partners with existing networks to make that happen.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
Lance: Social issue documentary films can do little on their own. The power of a film like this one is found in its ability to serve as a spur to dialogue and a hub for action. And every one of us has a role to play.
Think about it: We live in a democracy, so we're all implicated. We have the opportunity to stand up for another, to protect, defend, and help to heal one another—in the case of historical harm, through education, through public memorialization efforts, through legislation—and so, we must. The power of democracy cannot be separated from the duty of democracy. And so, Hannah and I are keen not to simply let these screenings come and go. We're trying to leave action in our wake.
Tragically, almost everywhere we go, the town or city where we screen has a history of racial violence—typically, a history that is unmarked. We offer resources for those who join us at screenings to enable them to research the history of racial violence in their communities. We urge audience members to do this research, to do so with fellow neighbors of conscience, and then to figure out what an appropriate form of public memorialization could look like in their towns. We’ve seen that robust efforts to mark hidden history can begin with just a few seemingly ordinary people. Those people can attract many more, and their numbers and the volume of their voices force meetings with local people in power. It’s possible. We just have to start.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
Hannah: In the film, we emphasize that lynching is not ancient history. We must all ask: “What are the modern-day echoes of lynching? And what can we learn from the history of lynching to inform our resistance to racism and racial violence today?” We can—we must—examine the ways in which public complicity allowed lynching to take place without reprisal, and consider what injustices we allow to endure today. And though the history of lynching is one of tragedy, it’s also one of resistance. We can take inspiration from journalists like Ida B. Wells and John Mitchell Jr., who took great risks to document and protest lynchings, and from organizations large and small that used the law, protest, media, and policy to carve out more safety and opportunity for black families.
Would you like to add anything else?
Lance: When it comes to the most difficult parts of our national past, those who talk about it are sometimes charged with stirring up discord—with dividing rather than uniting a country already clearly struggling to stay together. We see it differently. Families touched by racial violence have been changed forever. Public discussion of that past doesn’t dredge up something distant, but instead address a question of daily presence in the lives of more American families that we realize.
Indeed, the ugliest moments in American history flash back daily, spurring distrust among individuals and communities South and North. The force of this terribly present past is already pushing us apart and preventing us from working together more effectively on the whole range of challenges facing the nation today. By confronting the fullness of our past and identifying the behaviors and biases within us all that perpetuate the pain of the worst parts, we can do better. We can be better.
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Hannah: We’re developing a series about the visual landscape of American history and how sites—both officially recognized and unknown—can help us confront parts of our national past that are most difficult to discuss. We’re also working on a project about the history of voting rights. We’re committed to continuing our work at the intersection of history and social justice, and look forward to diving into new projects.
Interview: February 2018
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A documentary film about the history and legacy of lynching in the American South.
Length: 34 minutes
Co-Directors: Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren
About the writer, director and producer:
Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren are married documentary filmmakers and co-directors of Field Studio, a production company based in Richmond, Virginia. Hannah and Lance produce media at the intersection of history and social justice, with an emphasis on race, family, and community.
Key cast: Fostenia Baker, Mia Bay, Thelma Dangerfield, McArthur “Sonny” Gray, Jonathan Holloway, Andre Johnson, Hattie Lawson, Isabel Wilkerson, Yohuru Williams, Kimberly Wilson
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): Distribution partners
Social media handles:
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month?
K-12 teachers can access the film and curriculum for free through the Teaching Tolerance website: https://www.tolerance.org/classroom-resources/film-kits/an-outrage. University professors, students, and staff members, as well as library patrons, can stream the film for free through Kanopy: https://www.kanopystreaming.com/product/outrage-0. And we are continuing our 70-stop, 25-state tour of universities, museums, and festivals; upcoming events are listed on the film’s website: an-outrage.com.