An Interview with Jackie Olive, Cucalorus resident artist


Our summer residency program is coming to a close, but resident artist Jacqueline Olive hasn’t stopped working. She’s on the final production push of her film, “Always in Season,” which screened as a work-in-progress at Cucalorus 20, and is continuing efforts on the film’s Indiegogo campaign! “Always in Season” is Olive’s latest documentary feature that explores the lingering impact left by almost a century of African American lynchings in the United States. The film investigates the effects of racial terrorism across multiple communities, introducing the viewer to the perpetrators, spectators, and victims of lynching as they try to grapple with how to acknowledge and reconcile these horrific crimes that are still happening today. As a heated national discourse intensifies, “Always in Season” continues and informs the conversation, probing the complexity and pervasiveness of race and racial terrorism in the U.S. (View the trailer here!)

We were lucky enough to be able to sit down with Jackie to discuss her goals for the project, her time in Wilmington, and what exactly a Jackie Olive-inspired 21st birthday bash would look like.

AlwaysinSeasonQ: Explain your path to Cucalorus. What specific opportunities did you see in the artist-in residence program?

A: I ended up applying to the Works-in-Progress program last year and I got accepted. It was such a great opportunity to screen my film shortly after I finished a 25-minute cut at exactly the time when I needed feedback. For those who’ve never been to Cucalorus, it is such a fun, wacky, and warm environment. People come from all over the world to attend. That festival environment plus the opportunity to participate with colleagues, some of whom also had films about the need for racial justice and reconciliation, was so valuable. The best part was that I got to screen “Always in Season” at a variety of venues in Wilmington, from a local high school to Jengo’s Playhouse. The screenings were facilitated by amazing Alternate ROOTS staff, so when someone mentioned the artist in residency at the festival, I made a mental note to apply.

I was thrilled to be here for this summer, and I’m working on finishing filming, piloting my community engagement campaign, and creating a rough cut by late August. Very specifically, I am filming about an hour away in Bladenboro, NC, with the family of Lennon Lacy, an African American teen, 17, who was found hanging from a swing set last year on August 29, 2014. So the residency meant that I was able to resume filming with Lennon’s family, and I’m ideally located to do that.

Q: What have been some personal highlights of your career?

A: There have been many things I’ve been excited about. For instance, when I completed my graduate thesis film called, Black to our Roots, which is an hour long documentary that follows the journey of a group of African-American teens from Atlanta as they travel to Ghana in search of their connection to Africa, it was such a personal thrill to see the people that I had been filming with, portraying them in ways you don’t often see in mainstream media, sprawled larger than life on a theater screen. Another highlight was when that film was broadcast on PBS WORLD shortly afterwards.

One thing that is particularly meaningful to me is having interned with Academy Award-nominated director and Firelight Media founder, Stanley Nelson. I reached out to him in 2007 immediately after getting a masters degree in documentary film because I wanted to intern with the best director in the field, and he graciously took me on. It was a tremendously valuable learning experience.

It is hard to narrow down the high points of my career because every aspect of filmmaking is such a thrill for me. I feel honored every time someone I am filming with opens up their lives and invites me in.

Q: Your film, “Always in Season,” screened at Cucalorus 20 as a work-in-progress. What changes has the film gone through since then, and how has it developed?

A:  We went from a 25-minute cut to currently a version that is 40 minutes thanks to one of the editors on the project, Rodrigo Dorfman. Rodrigo is an outstanding editor, and I’ve never worked with someone who edits well so quickly. After filming in Bladenboro, we quickly cut the footage into the work-in-progress and reworked some of the older footage.  The Bladenboro piece is new and gives the film more emotional intensity and immediacy. The tragic story line about Lennon Lacy’s hanging helps to concretely show how the racial terrorism of the past is connected to widespread racial violence in the present.

Shaune Walters, left to right, Shawn Elliott Richardson and Cassandra Ottley link arms as they listen to NAACP North Carolina chapter president William Barber speak at the end of a march to honor the memory of Lennon Lacy and to bring awareness to the case, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Bladenboro, N.C. Lacy was found hanging from a wooden swing set in a mobile home park near his Bladenboro home in August.

Shaune Walters, left to right, Shawn Elliott Richardson and Cassandra Ottley link arms as they listen to NAACP North Carolina chapter president William Barber speak at the end of a march to honor the memory of Lennon Lacy and to bring awareness to the case, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2014, in Bladenboro, N.C. Lacy was found hanging from a wooden swing set in a mobile home park near his Bladenboro home in August.

Q: On your Indiegogo page, you mentioned that the film will help “inform the national debate about racial justice.” What new information or specific angle do you expect it to bring to the conversation?

A: First, the history of lynching is not new, but I rarely come across people who fully understand the scope of the terrorism. So there are a lot of lessons from just understanding the facts of the history, like that there were more than 5,000 lynchings for over a century and an overwhelming number of the victims were African American. In fact, scholars agree that the number of victims was probably 2 to 3 times as many, largely because we only know about the cases that were documented.  Before 1880 most lynching victims were white, but from that point forward, blacks were lynched far more frequently and with unparalleled brutality. Lynchings could last for hours, with the victims tortured and mutilated before finally being killed. There was a period in which it was relatively common for spectators to come out to watch. That’s white men, women, and children who attended lynchings like they were any other event. In Waco, Texas, 15,000 people came out in 1916 to watch that lynching.

When there is organized cover up and tacit denial, then we lose the lessons as a country that can help us understand the social climate that led to this widespread form of terrorism and miss the opportunity to explore how that climate, and the institutions that thrived because of it, are impacting us all today. Once you understand the history, there is no denying that when Lennon Lacy’s body is found hanging in Bladenboro with someone else’s shoes on his feet and his family insists that he wasn’t suicidal, then there’s good reason for the local authorities who investigated his death to at least consider the possibility that Lennon, who was also dating a 32 year old white woman, may have been lynched.

What “Always In Season” can bring to the conversation is showing the importance of confronting this history so that we fully understand the impact of this level of brutality on all of us, and reminding us that we have a collective stake in finding solutions that lead to justice and reconciliation.  The main characters in the film can be seen doing just that.

Q: Would you consider “Always in Season” a call-to-action film? What ways would you propose getting involved?

A: Yes. I’d like the film to move people to begin having dialogues in their communities about the historical violence of lynching and what they can do to acknowledge the victims, repair the damage and reconcile, and then begin to address issues of racial injustice going on right now, right where they live. Our plans are to engage communities with film screenings and dialogues that open conversations and identify resources for beginning the work that needs to be done for justice and reconciliation, using examples of strategies created in the communities featured in the film as potential paths to solutions.  The idea is not to inspire talk without action, but to model the conversations that need to be had across race and intraracially, and likely multiple times, so that people in communities can collectively decide what actions are specifically meaningful for them and then move to address historic and current racial violence.

AlwaysInSeasonQ: In your film, you chose to interview family members of victims and perpetrators of racial injustice, putting a human face on the issue rather than talking in abstract schemas.  Can you explain the importance of that decision?

A: The film not only humanizes the victims, but it also intimately explores who the perpetrators and spectators were. I either do that through the stories of those still living, like Olivia Taylor, who is one of the lynching reenactors in the film and actually witnessed a lynching at the age of three, or by featuring their relatives. I initially started out with a much more essay driven narrative, but I quickly realized that I wanted viewers to connect to the personal stories of those in the film so that the audience can understand every perspective of those involved in lynching—the victims, the lynchers, the spectators, and their relatives.

The subject matter is difficult and it can get intense. I wanted to remove the psychological barriers that we often put up to distance ourselves from facing issues of race and injustice. It has been important for me to do that in a way that prompts the viewer to see themselves in the story, and I’m always consciously thinking about how to draw the audience in even more. Because lynchings happened across the country in every state but four, and at its height the violence occurred several times a week and involved tens of thousands of people, the impact on all of us, even when we’re unaware, is pervasive.  I ideally want the audience to consider how their personal stories and their family narratives intersect with this history.

Q: Getting back to your time here in Wilmington, any highlights or favorite anecdotes from your residency so far you’d like to share?

A: It’s just been great seeing so many people show up to support me and the project, starting with everyone at Cucalorus and the welcome party they organized just a few days after I arrived.  Such a warm reception allowed me to connect with many people in the community that I’d met in 2014 at the festival.  I’ve run into people who were in the audience at last year’s screenings of the work-in-progress of “Always in Season”, so it was wonderful to reconnect. Over just a couple months I’ve met so many others who’ve reached out to offer support for the project.

On another note, my son and I drove here together from Florida, so we got in a great road trip only a couple of weeks after Teo got his driver’s license.  It’s great that he got to see Wilmington before heading home for the summer, and we had fun hanging out downtown and exploring the community together.

Q:  And finally, what’s the perfect Jackie Olive inspired recipe for a 21st birthday bash?

A: Well, one of the many fun things about attending the Cucalorus festival last year was all things moonshine. I love Sangria, particularly white sangria, and I recommend just adding moonshine.  We had this great spiced batch at the welcome party for the newest artist in residence, Jen Ray. My recipe calls for mixing white wine, ginger ale, peaches, white grapes, and orange slices to taste.  Then, to make it right for a Cucalorus twenty-first birthday bash, definitely add moonshine.

We’re excited to see the final product and enduring effects of Olive and her team’s hard work next year. In the meantime, you can stay updated on their efforts by liking and following “Always in Season” on Facebook, or by visiting the film’s website.

Learn more about the project and donate here!