Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence

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Courtesy photo
Jeffery Morgan/United States 2007

The premise for Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence is the stuff of which documentary filmmakers’ dreams are made. It is a compelling tale about sensational acts that is filled with quirky, unabashed players who bare themselves for the camera whether they realize they’re doing it or not. It is a story of a quest to uncover the buried past of a Southern town and of one family in particular. The journey through this sordid past is led by one of the family’s own: Alice Brewton Hurwitz.

Years ago, on the eve of her first marriage, Hurwitz was told a family secret: Her great-great aunt Lillie Brewton had long ago been brutally murdered by a black man. When he was caught, a mob pulled him from prison and lynched him in the center of the town square in Pensacola, Fla. The man’s name was Leander Shaw.

The story of Lillie and Leander planted a seed in Hurwitz’s mind that haunted her. A few years ago, on the verge of her retirement from a job at New York University, she began to ask other family members what they had heard about the story. Their answers eventually led her to an uncle named Joe Petty and a story far more sinister than she had imagined. It seemed that Leander Shaw may not have been an isolated incident; Hurwitz’s ancestors may have killed and surreptitiously buried dozens of black men near a bend in the road between two family farms. Once she heard this, Hurwitz decided that she needed to find proof. Lillie & Leander follows her on this journey of discovery through interviews, archaeological digs and confrontations with her family.

Hurwitz’s search for answers and the film’s characters are compelling – Petty’s daughter most of all, as she seems to thirst for the camera despite her obvious objections to the muckraking of her Yankee cousin. The politics of Lillie & Leander, on the other hand, are troubling. On the surface, the film purports to be about justice and recompense, but as the film unfolds, it increasingly seems that the film is more about the white guilt of the protagonist. By the end, Lillie & Leander is unsettling primarily for reasons that one might not expect. The film seems to be compelling one to care more about whether Hurwitz can sleep at night than about the untold lives of the men that might who might have been killed at her family’s hands.

Alice Hurwitz is, no doubt, an earnest, thoughtful woman. She seems genuinely hopeful that Lillie & Leander will help jumpstart a much-needed dialogue in the South. Understandably, she is also hopeful that it will help to close a dark chapter of her family’s history. The problem is that this thoughtful woman is not the Hurwitz that Jeffrey Morgan’s debut film presents on screen. Instead, it shows a woman obsessively searching for a way to clear her own mind of the thoughts that haunt her.

© 2007 Neal Solon. All rights reserved.

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