LRFF2015 Review: The Hanging of David O. Dodd

30 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“The Hanging of David O. Dodd” is part historical documentary, part performance art. Originally, it was a two-act play written by Phillip McMath, for the Weekend Theater in Little Rock, about a Confederate sympathizer hoping to save her wounded son and a Union supporter hoping to save a 17-year-old who is sentenced to hang as a spy. Directors Huixia Lu and Will Scott (The Night the Blackbirds Fell) have crafted an ambitious film version that essentially has the same cast as the play’s 2012 Weekend Theater premiere acting out segments from the play (edited chronologically, I believe). These segments are intersected with interviews from the actors themselves as well as writer McMath and others such as college professors sharing the history behind the story.

Some of the scenes are acted out on stage (in a blackbox theater) while others are presented in authentic-looking interior locations (such as the Old State House Museum in Little Rock) and some outdoor locations as well. This way, the film is like a hybrid of film and theater. The acting is consistently theatrical throughout, keeping in tradition with the play. Admittedly at times, I felt like I should be watching a play rather than a film and some parts don’t work well for film, but other times, such as when they’re making the most of their interiors, do. Yes, they’re written and acted for a play, but for the material, it works fine, such as when David O. Dodd (Aron Long), the 17-year-old sentenced to hang, is being debriefed by General Steele (Will Koberg), and a couple scenes involving Confederate sympathizer Medora Pilgrim (Libby Smith), Union supporter Philomena Tottenberg (Deb Lewis), and a maid named Marcella (Tracy Tolbert). But Lu and Scott know they’re making a film and don’t treat it as merely a recorded performance, hence why they chose other locations to set certain scenes, brought in the actors and other people to talk about the history behind the play’s story, and also filmed footage of a memorial 150 years after Dodd’s hanging.

When I got deeper into the film, I didn’t mind that later segments (such as David’s last day in jail and the hanging) took place in the theater. That may have to do with either the broad style of acting working better for the stage or perhaps even Johnnie Brannon, who plays a soldier, talking about his attitude towards acting in a blackbox theater that may have made it easier to accept. But that’s also when I thought, “Maybe I should be watching a play instead…”

It’s difficult to review a film that is both cinematic and stage-originated. I like film and I like theatre, but they’re both different in terms of style and execution. Putting together a hybrid of the two is no easy task and Lu and Scott mostly succeed in doing it, in that I enjoyed it and learned from it as well. Plus, the actors are appealing to watch—in addition to Long, Lewis, Smith, Tolbert, and Brannon, we also have Alan Rackley (John Wayne’s Bed) as a doctor and Jason Willey (A Matter of Honor) and William Moon as two Yankees guarding the border. And also, the play they’re acting out seems like a damn good play, framing it around the drama of a 17-year-old who became a martyr unwillingly, as well as showing plights of other people struggling through the times of the American Civil War. (“Nothing more dramatic than a hanging,” McMath says during an interview early on.) So in that respect, I admired the craftsmanship and recommend “The Hanging of David O. Dodd” for what it is.

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