Film Review: The Other Side of Eden

The Other Side of Eden: Stories of a Virginia Lynching. 2018. Produced by Tom Davenport with Shawn Nichols and Jim Hall. A Folkstreams Production: https://www.folkstreams.net/films/other-side-of-eden. Based in part on The Last Lynching of Northern Virginia: Seeking Truth at Rattlesnake Mountain, by Jim Hall.

This documentary film examines the abduction and sexual assault of Mamie Baxley by Shedrick Thompson on July 17, 1932 and the subsequent lynching of Shedrick. Through interviews with family members, researchers, and local community members, The Other Side of Eden depicts the complexities of racialized violence, the far-reaching impacts of such acts, and the discrimination Black people faced in the early 20th century. The film does fall short in a few regards: it fails to thoroughly investigate the sexual dynamic between a white man and his Black female employee and reinforces the idea that lynchings of Black men occurred primarily because of rape allegations. On the whole however, this film is a valuable resource for educators seeking to begin or continue discussions about lynching.

Themes

Discrimination Against Black People in the Early 20th Century

At the heart of this film is a story about a Black man (Shedrick Thompson, also known as Shed) who is lynched after being accused of invading the home of Henry Baxley Sr. (a white man), kidnapping Henry’s white wife (Mamie Baxley), and raping her. “He committed a malicious crime,” said Barbara Herrell, a white woman whose family lived close to the Thompsons at the time of the lynching. “But he still deserved a trial by jury.” Of course, Shed was denied this right — his body was found hanging from a tree two months after his invasion of the Baxley home, called Edenhurst. Upon discovery, his death was deemed a suicide and his body was promptly burned.

There are, however, other storylines in this film that support this theme. When Shed’s sister, Mary Thompson, falls ill with appendicitis, she is rushed to the closest hospital — a hospital for whites; there Mary is denied medical treatment and as a result, she dies (see 25:43 – 26:30). It’s revealed that Henry Baxley Sr. fathered a child with his Black cook and produced a daughter named Mamie Wilkens (named after Henry’s white wife). While Henry’s white son, Henry Baxley Jr., grew up living with both his parents, Mamie Wilkens grew up in an orphanage across the street from the Baxley home. Finally, the treatment Shed’s family receives after he is accused of the crime at Edenhurst is less than ideal: Shed’s wife, step-son, and brother are arrested after he disappears into the mountains. When Shed’s body is found, his decapitated head is delivered to the Thompson’s front porch before being placed underneath the steps of the Fauquier courthouse — a physical representation of Black’s people lowly status in the eyes of the justice system at the time.

Community Effects of Lynching

The events surrounding a lynching can have far-reaching, inter-generational impacts on a community. The first 20 minutes of The Other Side of Eden primarily portray the events surrounding the Edenhurst assault and lynching primarily from the perspective of the white community by interviewing Mamie Baxley’s son (Henry Jr.) and other people familiar with her story. Henry discusses powerful memories, like his mother’s deathbed revelation, and his family’s move from Edenhurst to The Cove after the attack on his mother. Gradually, the documentary shifts to other perspectives: Shed’s relatives and other members of the Black community, people related to members of the posse that lynched Shed, and a descendant of a sheriff who tried to halt the burning of Shed’s heavily decomposed body. The last few minutes of the film (53:38 – 58:00) do an excellent job of displaying the wide range of people who were impacted by the events of July 17, 1932.

The people directly connected to these events were impacted enough to hold tight to their memories and share them with their direct descendants and in some cases, their grandchildren. The inheritors of these stories in turn preserved them and deemed them significant enough to be shared on a wider platform, The Other Side of Eden. The Edenhurst events clearly impacted many people in Fauquier County for many years after 1932.

Historical Shortcomings

This film focuses on a lynching that is conducted because of an alleged rape of a white woman by a Black man. While it’s true that the protection of white womanhood was the primary justification provided by lynching supporters, this film fails to include an important counter-narrative: antilynching activists often referenced data that indicated that most lynchings of Black men had nothing to do with the rape of a white woman (other motivations included theft, murder, resisting arrest, arson, etc.). Failing to include this information is dangerous: viewers of this film could walk away with the belief that all lynchings of Black man were connected to rape allegations, which is simply untrue.

Antilynching activists also pointed out the discrepancy between the claim that white women were at high risk of being raped by Black men and the fact that white men were virtually never held accountable for the rape of Black women. There is a small reference to this in the film: it’s established that Henry Sr. fathered a daughter with his Black cook, Mattie Wilkens. But the relationship between Mamie Wilkens’ parents goes unexamined. Did Henry Sr. violently rape Mattie in a manner similar to how Shed raped Henry Sr.’s wife? What impact did Henry Sr.’s role as Mattie’s boss play in their sexual encounter? The film spends a considerable time examining the violent, non-consensual encounter that Henry Sr.’s wife was a victim of, but spends no time asking if Henry Sr. was himself a perpetrator of a similar crime. In this way, it reinforces the idea that Black men were the only people capable of committing heinous sexual crimes.

Teaching & Learning

I think this film is an excellent resource to use in any curriculum concerning lynching. It does an outstanding job of exhibiting the complexities of a lynching event and the impacts that events surrounding a lynching can have at the individual and community level. It also touches on the subjects of vigilante justice, discrimination against Black people, and the protection of white womanhood. As long as consumption of the film is done in an educational context and is guided by instructors who can take into account the historical shortcomings listed above, many benefits can be reaped from this viewing experience.

Prior to watching the film, learners should be encouraged to “source the source” and ask the kinds of questions that would normally be asked of a piece of historical scholarship:

  • Who produced/directed/funded this?
  • What other works have the people on this project produced?
  • Why was this film created?

Immediately after screening the film, viewers should reflect on the following questions:

    • What perspectives were presented and how did they differ from each other? What perspectives were not presented?
    • What sources did the filmmakers draw on and how credible are they? What perspectives were these sources depicting?
    • How do you feel after watching this film?
    • In your opinion, who is the victim of this film? Who is the antagonist? How does the film portray these people?

 

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