An Interview with Author Matthew Bernstein

Matthew Bernstein

Matthew H. Bernstein, professor, chair and director of graduate studies in the Film Studies Department at Emory University, recently visited the Decatur Library with a unique program on one of the worst crimes in Atlanta's history: the murder of Leo Frank in 1913. In his revelatory new book, "Screening a Lynching," Bernstein is the first scholar to examine feature films and television programs that followed in the wake of the sensational case. For the evening's presentation, he showed clips from some of these programs and offered insights into the cultural aspects of the productions to illuminate issues of race, ethnicity, religion and law. It was a very interesting evening.

It was my privilege to meet Mr. Bernstein that evening and I asked him if I could interview him for the Women's Book Reviews website. I thought that our subscribers would find the story behind the book fascinating.

Matthew, welcome to Women's Book Reviews! Please tell our readers where you grew up and where you went to school. What brought you to Atlanta?

I grew up on the North Shore of Long Island, Great Neck to be precise (“the old country,” as it is sometimes called). I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, majored in English, knew I wanted to teach, and thought I’d teach English literature. But then I took a film class and I was hooked. I attended Columbia to earn an M.F.A. in Film, and then returned to Madison to earn my Ph.D. (it was a far superior program). The position at Emory brought me to Atlanta, exactly 20 years ago this month. I was extremely fortunate to be hired.

Being a professor of film studies at Emory University, it is apparent that the cinema is your keen interest. Can you remember when you first became interested in films? Did you spend a lot of your youth in movie houses?

I did indeed. My parents (Brooklyn born and raised in the 1930s and 1940s) were regular moviegoers, and they took me with them. My earliest memory is from when I was 5 (Michael Caine in The Ipcress File, and Lawrence of Arabia). Another was when they took me to see The Producers and my dad took me to see Take the Money and Run. I never had laughed so hard before. I’m the youngest of five children so my older siblings would take me to other films (one sister to Woodstock, another sister to Funny Girl, one brother to The Godfather, another brother to The Last Picture Show—he was a Cybil Shepard fan).

There were also great classic films shown on the local NY channels (WOR Channel 9 and WPIX Channel 11—WOR used the Gone with the Wind theme music for its “Million Dollar Movie” so I knew that music long before I knew it was for GWTW). Movie going was such a big deal then, one of the most fun things one could do. And if I loved a particular film (The Odd Couple, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting), I’d go repeatedly. So I went to movies all through high school with friends, and then at Madison, in the late 1970s, the film society scene was amazing. I paid $6 my first semester to see 22 classic French films shown in 16mm in classrooms during the week. It was a real education. This was of course before video tape became a consumer item.

You have become a bit of an expert in the Leo Frank case. When did you first hear about this historical event and what caught your interest in it?

I had not heard of it until I moved to Atlanta. I think what caught my interest was what catches everyone’s interest. It’s a fascinating, amazing story and very upsetting in all kinds of ways.

Why did you decide to write “Screening a Lynching?”

"Screening a Lynching" is an offshoot of an ongoing project I am involved with urban historian and Atlanta expert Prof. Dana F. White of Emory. He and I have been working on and off on a project we call Segregated Cinema in a Southern City: Moviegoing in Atlanta, 1895-1963. We look at Atlanta as a business center for film (it was a distribution hub for the southeast), we look at the segregated theaters (location, bookings, accommodations—desegregated in 1962), and most interesting to most people, we look at censorship (Atlanta had a movie censor position from 1914-1962) and what’s called reception, how movies about the South and race relations were interpreted by black and white Atlantans.

All of this constitutes what we call movie culture in Atlanta. So the Leo Frank films of the 1930s, one by race filmmaker Oscar Micheaux (Murder in Harlem) and another from the Warner Bros. studio (They Won’t Forget), were of interest to us. But since Atlanta’s film censor cut Micheaux’s in half and banned the Warner Bros. film, they were not part of Atlanta’s film culture, and hence not part of our book.

At the same time, I was fascinated by how much the films showed of the case, and how much they did not or could not (the latter because of censorship: one could not fully show lynching in a film until the 1960s), or how much they fictionalized or disguised. One of my arguments in the book is that all these film and TV producers knew the case extremely well.

In your opinion, did Leo Frank kill Mary Phagan?

In my opinion, no. But the evidence is ambiguous, and I understand why some people (definitely in the minority) think he did.

In your book, “Screening a Lynching,” you reference four movies that were about the Leo Frank case, though maybe not overtly. Did one of these movies stand out in your mind as the most accurate about this case?

This is a good question. The TV shows are overtly about the case, as these filmmakers were comfortable using real names and places 40 and 60 years after the case occurred. The 1930s films are disguised in terms of settings and names, but if you know the case, you know what they are about. (Oscar Micheaux’s film dramatizes an African-American interpretation of the case). All the films dramatize the crucial issues of racial prejudice, mob violence and the miscarriage of justice (even if one believes Frank was guilty, he did not in fact receive a fair trial). Two (They Won’t Forget and The Murder of Mary Phagan) stress the role the press played in turning public opinion against Frank. No one version is the most accurate. The mini-series is the most comprehensive because of its 5-hour format, but it leaves out some crucial aspects of the case, and completely fictionalizes others (it casts Governor John M. Slaton, prosecutor Hugh M. Dorsey and the anti-Semite statesman Tom Watson as friends and political allies torn apart over the cae). I think They Won’t Forget best dramatizes the whirlwind quality of the murder, the trial and its aftermath in 105 minutes, but again, certain details are changed.

But what I find equally fascinating, and what I also address in the book, is how they depart from the record and why. Some of it has to do with the mindset of the filmmakers, and some of it has to do with what they knew and when. No one could dramatize the revelations of Frank’s office assistant Alonzo Mann until the 1988 miniseries, because Mann didn’t come forward until the early 1980s. All of the filmmakers saw the story as relevant to their own time—lynching in the 1930s, and national politics in the 1960s and the 1980s.

One of my main arguments in Screening a Lynching is that these films are doing history, conveying to us in very vivid terms their interpretations of how and why the case transpired as it did. They reflect the general consensus that Frank was innocent, but they try to different degrees to show why people thought he was guilty.

Have you written other books? If so, can you tell us briefly what they were and the topics that they covered?

Yes. My main field is American film history. My first book was a biography of Walter Wanger, a competitor of Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick’s who is not so well remembered, but produced over 60 films, including some clunkers but also some landmark classic films (Greta Garbo in Queen Christina, John Ford’s Stagecoach and The Long Voyage Home, Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once and Scarlet Street, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the film for which Susan Hayward won an Academy Award, I Want to Live! His last film was the infamous Cleopatra with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor). In the book I look at what a producer did from the 1920s through the 1960s and also, since Wanger was an “independent producer,” what did that mean then? It’s very different from what the term means now. So the book is called Walter Wanger, Hollywood Independent.

I’ve also edited several volumes. One is Controlling Hollywood: Censorship and Regulation in the Hollywood Era (which includes a piece I wrote about the famous censorship case against Scarlet Street in Atlanta) and another is John Ford Made Westerns: Filming the Legend in the Sound Era. My next book will be the Segregated Cinema volume.

When you are not teaching and not writing…what other activities to you get involved in?

Movie watching is both my work and my hobby. I host the Cinema Club, which meets 14 times a year on alternate Sunday mornings to preview foreign and independent films before they open in Atlanta. I am also involved in several committees for the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, work and a group of people I very much enjoy. I enjoy the other arts, particularly theater and the symphony. My wife Natalie and I like to travel in the summers. We watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report regularly. And we love spending time with our sons, Justin (25) and Adam (21).

Matthew, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. We will see you at the Decatur Book Festival!

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