Skinner Myers’ short film Frank Embree is a powerful memorialisation of a man who shouldn’t be forgotten. The story of Frank Embree is a harrowing and tragic one – a Black man descended on by a white lynch mob for a crime he didn’t commit. Myers captures Embree’s story through a series of slow, meditative shots asking the audience to reflect upon the essence of injustice at play. It also remains unfortunately prescient as we see in the ongoing racial injustices that are at play in the world still to this day, the ones that are highlighted through the BLM movement (a movement we felt compelled to highlight during our lockdown shorts series last year). Myers’ short isn’t filmmaking to entertain, it’s filmmaking to confront and challenge. DN spoke with Myers ahead of today, the anniversary of the lynching of Frank Embree, to discuss the emotional baggage that came with the decision to play Embree himself, why he chose to tell this story 16 years after first hearing about it, and the shot construction that went into the film’s powerful final moments.
When did you first discover Frank Embree’s story?
I discovered Frank Embree’s photo while I was a college student at Columbia University about 16 years ago. The photos of his lynching were made into postcards and given out as gifts. When I saw his photo for the first time I felt like he was communicating directly to me. This is what I wrote as a journal entry after seeing his photos for the first time:
“He seemed worn-out and tired. There was a warm glow that surrounded the outer edges of the frame. We locked eyes for what seemed like minutes, but it had only been a few seconds. I could see his pain and even imagined what it would have been like to be in his shoes at that very moment. My heart became heavy and part of me wanted to scream out in anger while the other part of me wanted to weep. His eyes said everything to me. He had been judged by the color of his skin. He had been ridiculed, beaten, spat upon, cursed at and abused, but none of these things could break his spirit. As he prepared for his final moments on this earth his body stood erect, strong, and steadfast. He knew that this life was temporary. I could not help the fact that I wanted to jump in and save him from his impending fate. The crowd around him gloated and smiled from ear to ear as if they had just claimed their winnings for capturing the biggest and wildest animal. Their eyes spoke of hatred, confusion, and ignorance. At first glance I hated all of them, but as time went on I only felt sorry for them. Only if we could move on from this place I thought, but I realized it had been too late. It had been about 200 years too late. The man I so deeply connect with was a colored man who had been falsely accused of a crime he did not commit and was beaten in front of a large white crowd before being hanged publicly. The inscription on the back of the photograph read something to the effect of “We got us one”. There were a series of photographs that showed this colored man’s impending execution.”
And what brought you to tell his story 16 years after seeing that photo?
I was finishing up the festival run for a previous short film I had made called La Tierra Del Exodo and I was trying to figure out what my next project was going to be. I remember I re-discovered the journal entry about Frank that I had written as an undergrad and knew right then that I wanted to figure out how to immortalize him via celluloid. After that I became obsessed with trying to put the project together. I did a tonne of drafts on the script and the final version ended up being about one page and a half. His story reflected some of the issues that Black Men are still facing today in terms of how we are viewed in society and I just felt an urgency to get this film made and out into the world.
I knew I wanted it to be a piece of slow cinema and I wanted it to be disturbing visually and audibly. I also wanted to play Frank so I knew I had my work cut out for me.
When I saw his photo for the first time I felt like he was communicating directly to me.
How was it for yourself acting in that role?
Playing Frank was a pretty intense experience. I just kept imagining what he must have been going through emotionally knowing that he was about to be murdered and at one point it almost became too much. Everyone was in a somber mood and really took the work seriously. After we wrapped it took me a while to shake the general anger and frustration I felt about his life and what happened to him.
What made you want to tell Frank’s story as a piece of slow cinema?
I think slow cinema is wonderful because it forces the audience to slow down and really experience the world of the film in real time alongside the characters. Also, it allows the location of the piece to become an important character. I knew with Frank’s story I wanted it to be slow burn to mimic the time it took to torture and then lynch him. I felt that by using some slow cinema techniques it would assist the audience in focusing on what was happening on the screen. The feature version will use slow cinema techniques as well.
Once you decided on bringing this to life cinematically, what were your next steps in getting the project together?
I self-financed the film on credit cards and started out trying to find the perfect lynching tree. I think we scouted over 20 different locations that had old oak trees in California. We finally settled on one up in Simi Valley at a place called Big Sky Movie Ranch. They gave us eight hours to film because the first season of Westworld was filming on the same ranch close to our location. I had a friend’s girlfriend, who went to AFI, give us some 35mm film left over from her thesis project. I think we shot 1200 feet of film, which is three rolls and that only gave us about 13 minutes worth of shooting time.
I’m really interested to know how you executed some of your shots such as the lynch mob as well as the incredible shot of the lynching? It’s a really powerful and harrowing image.
I had to get a company called Dapper Cadaver to custom create a dummy that looked like me, which cost a nice penny, but that was the only way to pull the lynching shot off. I gathered as many filmmaker friends that I could find to play the lynch mob and we got the whole film shot in about six hours. It took about four hours for all the scarring makeup to be applied so really we shot the film in about two to three hours. We only did one to two takes of each set up and had to recycle some of the shots in the edit to get the effect that we wanted.
What kit did you shoot on and how long did the project take to put to bed?
We used the Arri ST 35mm camera, Kodak 500T 35mm film stock, a 14mm Zeiss Ultra Prime lense, a dolly track and a tripod to film the entire thing. So we filmed for one day, and the post took about 2 months. My good buddy Ato Essandoh recorded the VO for the project and we did all the sound design at LMU where I used to teach film.
I knew I wanted it to be a piece of slow cinema and I wanted it to be disturbing visually and audibly.
You mentioned wanting to make this audibly disturbing, how did you set out to do that?
With the sound design we approached it in a way where if the audience closed their eyes to escape the visual onslaught then we wanted to make sure they couldn’t escape it audibly. The goal was to try and put the audience alongside Frank as he’s dying. To suffocate them with the sound design. It is essentially a horror film so we wanted the sound design to be horror-esque. For example, the choking scene where you hear the choking, but you don’t see it was purposely designed so that it went the length that it took for him to die once they strung him up. We could have chosen to focus on a different sound, but I felt the choking would elicit a visceral response from the audience, which it usually does.
Have you noticed any splits across racial or geographical lines in the way people engage with the film?
For the most part, I’ve had a lot of different types of people tell me how much the film impacted them. Out of all the Q&As I’ve done the biggest support came from the Black community, which was expected, but surprisingly we’ve had a lot of support from the South as well. A few people from Fayette, Missouri have reached out with words of encouragement and support for the film.
That’s not to say that everyone has loved it. We were at a festival in Cali where an older white guy decided to tell me why my POV on race was incorrect, but you know that comes with the territory. I did have one white middle school teacher from Missouri email asking me to present the film to his class, which was cool. We had a good conversation about the film, Frank’s story, and race relations in America afterwards. I’m sure with all the right-wing craze over Critical Race Theory something like that could get a teacher fired in certain parts of this country, but it is what it is.
What’s next for yourself?
The goal now is to make the feature version of his story. The script is complete and we have some actors attached already. Just have to raise the money.
What can you tell us about how you plan to open up Frank Embree’s story beyond the moments of this short in the feature version?
The opening of the feature starts off with a poem by George Moses Horton that will be heard over black. The poem:
“Deceitful worm, that undermines the clay, which slyly steals the thoughtless soul away, pervading neighborhoods with sad surprise, like sudden storms of wind and thunder rise. The sounding death-watch lurks within the wall away some unsuspecting soul to call: The pendant willow droops her waving head, and sighing zephyrs whisper of the dead. Methinks I hear the doleful midnight knell–some parting spirit bids the world farewell; The taper burns as conscious of distress, and seems to show the living number less. Must a lov’d daughter from her father part, and grieve for one who lies so near her heart? And must she for the fatal loss bemoan, or faint to hear his last departing groan. Methinks I see him speechless gaze awhile, and on her drop his last paternal smile; With gushing tears closing his humid eyes, the last pulse beats, and in her arms he dies. With pallid cheeks she lingers round his bier, and heaves a farewell sigh with every tear; With sorrow she cosigns him to the dust, and silent owns the fatal sentence just. Still her sequestered mother seems to weep, and spurns the balm which constitutes her sleep; Her plaintive murmurs float upon the gale, and almost make the stubborn rocks bewail. O what is like the awful breach of death, whose fatal stroke invades the creature’s breath! It bids the voice of desolation roll, and strikes the deepest awe within the bravest soul.”
After that, we open on the lynching tree but before Frank’s death. We actually see Frank and a white girl being affectionate with each other. I won’t go into more detail as to not give away the rest of the scene but basically, that is the beginning of the end for Frank.
Most of the feature film is based on newspaper accounts, but I did take the liberty of adding a few things to the story that critiques how black men are viewed, sexualized, and dealt with under a system of White Supremacy. The feature script is only 52 pages, but it’s a slow cinema piece so I envision the final version being around two hours long.
Frank Embree is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.