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My New Book!
My New Book!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

May 8, 2018: Hap & Leonard Studying: Redefining Lynching

[One of the best parts of my 2018 so far has been discovering SundanceTV’s Hap & Leonard. Based on the series of novels by Joe Lansdale, and starring James Purefoy and Michael K. Williams, the series has completed two wonderful 6-episode seasons and as I write this is in the midst of Season 3. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Hap & Leonard contexts, leading to a special weekend post on the unique career to date of Michael K. Williams!]
On two important historical themes in the show’s amazing second season.
To this viewer at least, Hap & Leonard’s Season 2 (based on Lansdale’s second H&L novel, Mucho Mojo [1994]) was vastly superior to the (already quite good) Season 1. There were various reasons why, including both lead actors settling even more fully into their wonderful characters (and some inspired guest casting, including the always great Brian Dennehy), but by far the most important factor was the season’s central plot, which focused on both historical and contemporary (as of the late 1980s, although they all felt strikingly relevant to 2018 as well) issues facing African Americans in its East Texas setting. In the season’s opening scene Hap and Leonard find the decaying corpse of a young boy in the crawl space of Leonard’s deceased Uncle Chester’s house, and this mysterious and disturbing discovery leads them to a community of African American women and families that have lost their sons. As ever, this plot connects to Hap and Leonard’s present and past lives and identities in various complex and compelling ways, but I would argue that the season nonetheless remains consistently focused on the African American boys, mothers, families, and histories in overarching and vital ways.
In so doing, the season impressively and importantly broadens our understanding of the horrific, still far too under-remembered histories of lynching in America. The season’s flashbacks do include a harrowing sequence in which the Ku Klux Klan arrive at an African American church, hang its pastor, and burn it to the ground, killing the pastor’s wife and a large number of children (both theirs and others’, I believe) in the process. But throughout the season that more overt version of a white supremacist-led lynching (of both an individual African American man and an entire community) is directly paralleled to the stories of the missing African American boys, making a clear case that the violence, neglect, official indifference, and other factors that contribute to such histories represent just as destructive a presence within the African American community as the Klan and its domestic terrorism. While many commentators (including this AmericanStudier) have referred to the constant police shootings of African Americans as a modern-day lynching epidemic, Hap & Leonard reminds us that much violence takes place in quieter and more subtle, but no less destructive, ways.
And then there’s Leonard. Thanks to his association with his Uncle Chester, but also undoubtedly to the color of his skin, Leonard becomes a prime suspect in the kidnapping and murder of the boy found under Chester’s house, and spends a good bit of Season 2 in or around prison and the justice system. While there he’s consistently mistreated and abused, not only physically (although a racist cop does beat him brutally while he’s in custody) but in various other legal and illegal ways as well. These racist mistreatments are generally accepted (even by Leonard) as par for the course, although both Hap and Leonard’s lawyer Florida Grange (the wonderful Tiffany Mack) fight hard and well to challenge that narrative. Without ever quite saying as much, the show thoughtfully weaves this racism in the justice system into the context of the historical and contemporary lynchings and violence, reminding us that older black men can disappear nearly as easily as young black boys. If it seems hard to believe that a crime show can present such multi-layered historical and cultural themes within a six-episode season, well, that’s the magic of Hap & Leonard!
Next context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on H&L, or other shows you’d highlight?

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