leo-frank-at-trialmaryphaganI was a graveside mourner at Mary Phagan’s funeral.

I was on the jury that convicted Leo Frank of her murder.

I was one of the good citizens of Marietta who gawked at Frank’s lifeless body dangling from a tree.

I was all these people and a couple more – in different coats and hats. I was a background player, an extra, in “The People v. Leo Frank,” a historical docudrama that got a special hometown premiere Thursday night at Cobb Energy Center.

Filmmaker Ben Loeterman previously has made documentaries about the Golden Gate Bridge and John Dillinger for PBS’s “American Experience.” He shot his Leo Frank film at various locations around Atlanta area last summer. The film, which supplements archival photographs and news clippings with dramatic re-enactments, will eventually air nationwide on PBS, probably late this year.

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Thursday night, however, “The People v. Leo Frank” was the centerpiece of a combination community gathering and anti-hate rally at the cavernous Cobb concert hall. As more than one speaker noted over the course of the evening, it’s only a few miles from the spot where Frank was lynched in August 1915 by a mob that included some of the leading civic and business leaders of the area.

The hall was packed almost to the rafters with politicians (including former Gov. Roy Barnes and current Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin); patrons of the filmmaker; members of the Atlanta Anti-Defamation League; law enforcements officers; cast members and crew; and kids, hundreds of kids, many of from the ADL’s “No Place for Hate” program.

slaton-headlinebwajc_mobtakesIt was also a strange reunion of sorts, perhaps the first time relatives of all the major characters in this infamous case were in the same room. Along with descendents of the vigilantes, there were relatives of Frank, the Jewish, Cornell-educated pencil-factory manager convicted of rape and murder, and latter-day kin of the victim, Phagan, a 13-year-old factory girl. There were also relatives of Jim Conley, the janitor who was the state’s major witness against Frank and who some historians today believe to have been the real killer.

Not that any of the people from the various families were asked to stand up and identify themselves, mind you.  But Loeterman had let invited cast and crew know by email that the audience would be, well, diverse, and that we should exercise discretion if we were to discuss the merits of the case at the screening. Who was guilty is still not settled in some of these folks’ minds.

For a film that deals with such an awful subject, “The People v. Leo Frank” evoked a surprising number of laughs, none bigger than when a historian on-screen noted that Atlanta’s Jewish community in 1913 was so Dixie-fied and so un-Orthodox that they considered themselves almost Episcopalian.

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In the main, though, it’s pretty sobering.  The Atlanta Jewish community’s sense of acceptance was shattered after Frank was charged with the murder of his young employee. The anti-Semitism that erupted in and around the city – that is unmistakable in the hateful signs and handbills and editorials from the era depicted in the film – is staggering in its pervasiveness and virulence.

It’s a hard film to watch. Yet nothing in “The People v. Leo Frank” made me as uncomfortable as being in it. Being in one scene in particular. As actors portraying the lynching party rousted the actor playing Leo Frank from his cell on the big screen, I flashed back to a hot, muggy afternoon last summer – dusk standing in for dawn – when Loeterman was filming the aftermath of the execution. We were in an oak grove adjacent an abandoned church off a dirt road near Griffin, Ga. Slowly we extras assembled, murmuring among ourselves, encircling a mannequin in a soiled white nightshirt that hung by its stretched and twisted neck from a thick rope. We were told it okay to walk up and touch the “body” if we felt like it – after all, photographs from the day show Marietta residents in their Sunday best posing with Frank’s corpse.

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I kept my distance. It was a moment I could not bring myself to be in.

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Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.