The Leo Frank case has been examined and re-examined over the years. It's been the subject of four film works and numerous books, the most recent of which put into even clearer perspective the trial that eventually re-energized the Ku Klux Klan and emboldened the Anti-Defamation League.
So it's a pleasant surprise that The People vs. Leo Frank — writer/director Ben Loeterman’s half documentary, half re-enactment — still feels fresh in its depiction of Georgia’s most infamous murder trial.
Part of it is the timing: The movie comes more than 20 years after the last film work, the Emmy-winning mini-series starring Jack Lemmon and then-unknowns Peter Gallagher, Kevin Spacey and Cynthia Nixon. It also comes on the heels of Emory film studies chair Matthew Bernstein’s book about all four film works, Screening a Lynching.
Throw in Steve Oney’s definitive 2003 book, And the Dead Shall Rise, and Loeterman has both plenty of source material and the space of time to draw in a new generational audience. He takes advantage, recruiting Oney and a host of other sources (almost too many) for the movie's documentary side.
For the film's fictionalized re-enactments, which give it a kind of Discovery Channel feel, Loeterman cast a group of actors who may be unfamiliar, but are dead ringers for their subjects. The best is Will Janowitz, who captures the nervousness and defiance of Leo Frank.
Deftly dancing between talking heads and actors, Loeterman lays out in mostly chronological order the case in which the Atlanta pencil factory manager was arrested, tried, convicted and eventually lynched for the murder of Mary Phagan, one of his many teenage workers. Though suspicion initially fell on one black factory worker and then on another, janitor Jim Conley, Frank — a Jewish New Yorker transplant — became the prosecution’s target.
Historians such as University of South Carolina’s Dan Carter and Atlanta author Melissa Fay Greene provide the regional, religious and racial context. Loeterman dutifully builds the tension through Frank’s case, including the conviction (with dubious evidence); the countless appeals that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court; and the pardon by then-Gov. John M. Slaton following his own investigation.
Curiously, Loeterman chooses William Smith, Conley’s lawyer, as the film's hero and narrator because of Smith’s belief that Conley may have committed the murder and aided Slaton’s investigation. (It doesn’t help that the actor playing Smith, Jayson Warner Smith, fails to deliver an authentic Southern accent.)
It seem like a minor quibble considering the film’s other strengths, including its true star, Oney, who delivers his perspective with a comfortable expertise that captures the gravity of the case without ever sounding portentous. That his knowledge could be brought to film is just one of many reasons why Leo Frank can once again be watched anew.
Immediately following the broadcast, GPB will air a half-hour roundtable discussion of the Leo Frank case, filmed last week at the Georgia Historical Society and featuring Oney (author of And the Dead Shall Rise), Emory University film studies chair Matthew Bernstein, and former Gov. Roy Barnes.