In their new documentary, Lillian Smith: Breaking the Silence, father-and-son filmmakers Hal and Henry Jacobs tell the story of author and activist Lillian Smith (1897–1966), a daughter of the Jim Crow South.
Smith, a white woman of privilege born into the Lost Cause mythology of her time, dedicated her life to breaking what she called “the taboo of silence” among so-called moderate and liberal whites of the 1940, ’50s and beyond, and to making obvious the absolute necessity to stand up and speak out against the demagogues and populists — the racists — of the day to begin to change the world for people of all races.
Breaking the Silence premieres at 7 p.m. August 30 as part of the Decatur Book Festival. This follows three sold-out preview screenings in May. Although Friday’s premiere is sold out, subsequent screenings are scheduled in Decatur (August 31), Athens (September 19 and October 26) and LaGrange (November 7).
The documentary is an engaging, enlightening and at times devastating portrayal of the underexamined life of a woman who lived in a once-upon-a-time that is all too present today. With the 50-minute film, the Jacobs deliver an indelible gift to those who will listen — and we must all listen — in a divided country that needs the voice of the protagonist and others like her now more than ever.
Others like her . . .
That’s the interesting part. There were no others like Lillian Smith in her era, at least none with such a prominent platform. She was important as early as the 1930s and especially after the success of her novel Strange Fruit, a 1944 bestseller about interracial love.
Smith spoke out big, with eloquence, authority and grace, despite the consequences. She was fearless as she challenged her own kind about the damages of racial segregation. “We white people of the South think of ourselves as free, but we are chained to taboos and superstitions,” she said in a 1960 speech, “tied to a mythic past that never existed, weakened by memories that are in passionate conflict with each other. Segregation has made psychic and moral slaves of so many of us.”
Three years later, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail, singled out a small group of “our white brothers in the South who have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it.” Smith was among those mentioned.
She understood his invocation. She’d been writing about its necessity for more than two decades. “King’s critiques of moderates was anticipated by Smith by more than a decade in her book Killers of the Dream (1949),” Emory University’s Joseph Crespino wrote in his 2018 book Atticus Finch: The Biography.
Moderates, wrote Smith, were those “who spoke for law and order but would not speak against the segregation that threatened law and order; they would protest the lynching of men’s bodies but not the lynching of their spirits.”
The documentary, which recreates the world she was speaking of and to, opens with a hauntingly gorgeous aerial view — more daguerreotype than video. In sharp but ghostly contrasts of white and black, we see the Suwannee River near Smith’s North Florida birthplace. She is introduced in words from James Baldwin that seem inscribed on that river: “Lillian Smith is a very great, heroic and very lonely figure.”
“The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist? The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”
A tapestry of voices begins to weave a portrait of the graceful woman we see in black-and-white images walking through the woods of her Screamer Mountain home in Rabun County.
“In my opinion, she was Jane the Baptist,” says Lonnie King, a friend of Smith’s and an organizer of the Atlanta Student Movement.
George Yancy, an Emory philosophy professor, provides what seems to be the documentary’s moral spine. The filmmakers obviously respect him, and for good reason. Yancy, articulate and passionate, informs as much as he inspires, and draws a portrait of Smith with words that become sculpture.
So Lonnie King knew Lillian Smith, as did Martin Luther King Jr. James Baldwin knew of her. Civil rights activist and eventual Congressman John Lewis knew of her. To be sure, the staunch segregationist politicians and editors knew of her. So, to great effect, each of us begins to ask ourselves, How could I not know . . . ?
Piece by piece, Breaking the Silence illustrates a time and place in our history with the voices and experiences of those who lived it, with those who knew and respected Smith, and with those who thwarted and vilified her.
It uses archival footage to great effect, telling her story with clarity. A particularly chilling clip from 1959, sponsored by something called the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, illuminates the banality of the evils inherent in supremacist assumptions, made more so by the Leave It to Beaver-style background music accompanying the movie reel voice-over: “In Forest, as in every community in Mississippi, there is segregation of the races. Drinking fountains are segregated. Restrooms are segregated. The local theaters are segregated; Negroes sit in the balcony. There is only one swimming pool in Forest, for whites only.” These are only several of the fantastic reasons, it argues, that businesses should locate in the state.
“I broke every barrier I could to see things as they are.”
Last year, when he was making the film, Hal Jacobs in a conversation with ArtsATL said: “Lillian spoke out against the very things we are facing today. Authoritarian leaders. White supremacy. Leaders using lies and fear to wield power.”
The Jacobs chose to make a biographical documentary, one without editorial, rather than a social justice narrative (though it is unavoidably that) that would address the current state of our society, culture and politics. They hope that after hearing Smith’s message, Breaking the Silence audiences “will connect the dots between Lillian’s life and words from more than 75 years ago with what’s going on today.” Hal Jacobs says he hopes “her voice will inspire more dialogue, more fearlessness and more people breaking the silence as we look forward to the next election.”
That her voice will inspire more dialogue . . .
Smith’s voice, when it does arrive in the film, comes as a cool drink of water over the parched (im)morality of words from Eugene Talmadge, Georgia’s governor in the 1930s and ’40s. “We in the South love the Negro in his place,” Talmadge said. “But his place is at the back door with his hat in his hand.”
Her voice carries the mannered sound of gentility that no doubt made it more difficult for those in power to take her seriously. This grace and decorum stood in steely opposition to entitlement. Note, in particular, her eloquence in the clip from a 1950s NBC’s Today show as she delivers the opposition voice to the segregationist point of view.
There’s little doubt that Smith’s voice is as necessary, as powerful and as critical now as it ever was. Remember Forest, Mississippi, the proud segregated town in the 1959 advertisement? It’s the same place that 60 years later would host the largest ICE raid since President Donald Trump took office.
ArtsATL contributor Donna Mintz has been a longtime supporter in the making of “Breaking the Silence.”