Last fall, students in Professor Dee Garceau’s Historical Documentary Filmmaking class helped write, direct, and edit a short film called A Massacre in Memphis. Their work depicting a violent eruption of racial tension in the Reconstruction Era recently won honors from Southern Shorts Awards.
Garceau’s dedication to sharing truth through film inspired this retelling of white mob violence against a black community. “If this massacre did appear in a traditional history of the American South, the blame was placed on African Americans,” says Garceau. “When the students and I looked at the evidence, that was not the case. There were policemen who started this mob violence and the elite, upper-class whites who were in leadership positions in Memphis did nothing to stop it.”
The Memphis Massacre occurred in 1866 and serves as a powerful example of the devaluation of black lives in post-Civil War America. Aside from clarifying confusion surrounding this event, the creators of this documentary aimed to open viewers’ eyes to ongoing violence against racial minorities.
Sarah Link ’19, a film and media studies minor, acted as a co-director and voiceover producer. Link explains that the inclusion of transcripts from primary sources in addition to historian commentary culminated in a dynamic, first-hand account of this tragedy.
“We got a bunch of different types of voices to read the lines, and with the layering effect you get the impact of just how many lives were lost in the massacre,” says Link. “If you read these transcripts, you could overlay things they say onto the current moment and they would apply.”
Link initially enrolled in Garceau’s class to gain perspective on the process of filmmaking, rather than film analysis. Students in the class conducted research for seven weeks, which included reading from a congressional investigation, historical scholarship, and testimony from African Americans in Southern cities during the Reconstruction Era. Finally, the class collaborated with Garceau’s documentary film company, Dance River Productions. Garceau’s production company has been lauded for similarly moving films, such as Remember Fort Pillow, which exposes yet another massacre of black soldiers by white Southerners.
After a semester-long effort at better understanding and portraying the story of A Massacre in Memphis, Garceau and her students were recognized for their hard work. The Southern Shorts Film Festival named their documentary an Official Festival Award Winner of the Summer 2018 Season. Placing as one of the top-three highest-scoring films among documentary submissions, the film also earned a place in the Southern Shorts Summer Season Film Festival line-up. There it was screened in competition for Documentary of Summer 2018. Although the film did not win that award, Garceaux expressed her joy in being included in such a prestigious line-up
“This is a huge honor, and I am so proud of the work the students did. I am delighted to have shepherded a project to the point where it was recognized that way,” says Garceau. “Dance River Production’s mission is to dramatize history that resonates today, and A Massacre in Memphis speaks to that mission by raising questions about racism and violence.”
By Jaclyn Flood ’21