One of many dark aspects of the plague of racial terror lynchings that swept the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries was that memorabilia of the murders was often freely distributed, including postcards. This ghoulish practice is the subject of the film Lynching Postcards: “Token of a Great Day,” which was recently shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Ahead of a screening and Q&A with director Christine Turner at Film Forum, Hyperallergic was able to talk to her over email about the short.
An experienced nonfiction producer and director, Turner has previously made shorts about Black US funerary practices and Betye Saar. She explained this documentary’s genesis: “As an archival researcher, I had come across lynching postcards in my work, but hadn’t seen a film that explored them in depth. A short felt right, given the limited scope of the story. The imagery itself is also a lot to take in, and it’s hard for me to imagine sitting through a feature on the subject.”
The short is naturally self-reflexive, using images to discuss images. Turner uses her framing to emphasize the tangible elements of these photographs. “Many if not most of the images are shown in their entirety. I wanted to preserve their wear and tear and present them as not only evidence, but as the physical objects that they are.” But she also describes it as being in large part about the white gaze: “there are also times that I chose to crop into certain images in order to direct the eye toward the crowd, while de-centering the body of the lynching victim. It’s those smiling and prideful faces of White men, women, and children that the film is really calling attention to.” Similarly, the film has Black actors read text written on the postcards in voiceover, disjointing its point of view from that of the white letter-senders, a way to “comment on the text itself.”
The film also explores how civil rights activists used these postcards to advance their own cause, bringing to light incidents that were otherwise denied or actively covered up around the country. Turner is adopting a similar approach here, although she was also conscious of the potential pitfalls of featuring imagery of racist violence. “Anti-lynching activists also wrestled with that debate in their time. I came to the conclusion that if contextualized properly, these images can and should be seen, especially in a moment like now when history is so under attack. I chose images that were legible but not gratuitous, and avoided lingering on them.”
Turner recommends a few resources for learning more about the history of lynching. “A good place to start is with Equal Justice Initiative’s report ‘Lynching in America.’ There is also a new book out called Lynching and Leisure by Dr. Terry Anne Scott, as well as biographies about Ida B. Wells, the pioneering journalist and anti-lynching activist.” If you aren’t in New York or can’t make the Film Forum screening, the short can also be streamed via Paramount+.