This post is part of a new blog series that announces the release of new films in African American History and African Diaspora Studies. Today, I am featuring “An Outrage,” which opened at the Smithsonian National Museum of History on March 11 and will continue screening across the nation in the coming months.
“An Outrage” is directed, edited, and produced by Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren, co-directors of Field Studio. They make films at the intersection of history and social justice, focusing on race, incarceration, and family. Hannah and Lance’s first film, That World is Gone: Race and Displacement in a Southern Town, won the Audience Award for Best Short Documentary at the 2010 Virginia Film Festival. Their documentary work has also been featured in the PBS Online Film Festival, on the storytelling website Narratively, and at various film festivals. In addition to their independent documentaries, they have produced educational and promotional videos for nonprofits, museums, and universities, including the Women’s Refugee Commission, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, and the University of Richmond. Their work extends beyond film production to photography, audio documentaries, and text, demonstrated most recently by the multimedia project Richmond Justice.
Hannah is a native of Charlottesville, Virginia, and attended the College of William & Mary and Columbia University. Her background is in history, nonprofit development, and multimedia storytelling. Previously, Hannah supported fundraising and communications efforts at the human rights video advocacy organization WITNESS. Lance was raised in Virginia. He studied history and politics at Syracuse University and Brandeis University, focusing on civil rights and social justice in the twentieth-century United States. From 2010–2016 he supported the work of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, producing online courses, video series, and virtual field trips for history teachers across the country. Follow the directors on Twitter @
“An Outrage” is a documentary film about lynching in the American South. Filmed on-location at lynching sites in six states and bolstered by the memories and perspectives of descendants, community activists, and scholars, this unusual historical documentary seeks to educate even as it serves as a hub for action to remember and reflect upon a long-hidden past.
Thousands of African Americans confronted, resisted, endured, and perished during the era of lynching in the American South. Beginning with the end of the Civil War and continuing well into the middle of the twentieth century, this extralegal, socially-sanctioned practice of torture and murder claimed the lives of at least 3,959 African American men, women, and children. This past is little discussed today, even as its wounds fester.
In town squares and deep in the woods, in secret and on public display, white men, women, and children participated in the kidnapping, mutilation, and killing of African Americans said to have committed serious crimes or minor affronts on white honor. Because lynching was killing that took place outside the legal system, accusations of wrongdoing were never argued in courts of law. (Many more African Americans were condemned through swift show trials under the guise of justice.) The innocent were murdered again and again. At the height of the lynching epidemic, in the 1890s, one African American was killed somewhere in the South every four days.
The history of lynching ought to grab us by the collar, compel us to confront fundamental truths—among them, that the present is an ongoing exchange with the past. History is not a long-distance conversation with the dead. The past is persistently present as it perpetuates the old lies of race, tribe, and hierarchy. To tell the truth, we must understand the lies—the outrages—that have produced our present moment.
This will be a long journey. It must not end. To survive and flourish together, at a time when scarcities of opportunity and civility grow ever more apparent, we will need grace, dignity, and intention—a broad-based commitment to fairness and unity. We’re hard at work with the hope that this film proves a worthwhile step in the right direction.
Michael T. Barry Jr: How do you hope your film’s revisiting of lynching in the American South will educate and inform modern audiences?
Lance Warren and Hannah Ayers: The history of lynching—an era of racial terror that stretched over generations in the United States—is unknown or unfamiliar to modern audiences. We know, in part, because we were once part of that group. As students of American history, we had a basic understanding of this past. But we came to see how the limits of our knowledge had blinded us to a much broader, vastly more troubling reality.
Many thousands of men, women, and children—brothers, sisters, veterans, newlyweds, parents—were murdered in the century after emancipation as they pursued freedom. Today, their destruction is largely unacknowledged. We hope that individual communities will gather around this film and start conversations about how to address lynchings that may have occurred in their midst. Memorials to victims would be a fine start, especially as 1,500 Confederate monuments still stand across the South. But crucially, as one activist notes in “An Outrage,” one-by-one, towns need to “clean the heart out.” We must confront the terrible fact of unchecked murder, and then, coming together with the shared conviction that these deaths were awful and preventable, chart a way forward articulated by a great diversity of voices—a future envisioned by all of our neighbors.
After all, these killings reflect the white South’s grief over a cause lost—and its violent celebration of supremacy won. The degree to which lynching victims have been forgotten and pushed out of mainstream historical memory reflects the depth of reconciliation that our country requires. We hope that once more audiences learn about this past, they will, like us, reach the conclusion that it simply must be discussed, it must be addressed, it must compel us toward a unity that will replace what we see today: ongoing killings of unarmed African Americans at a rate similar to killings at the height of the lynching era, a situation that Isabel Wilkerson aptly describes in our film as “a heartbreaking symmetry of public attack on people who had been at the lowest caste from the time of the founding of the country.”