Movie Review of Carolina Skeletons (1991)

by JoHarrington

This harrowing made-for-TV film is based on the true story of George Stinney Jr., a child put to death in the USA. It stars Louis Gossett Jr, Bruce Dern and Melissa Leo.

Racism and the worst excesses of the Jim Crow laws are exposed in this TV drama movie.

A decorated army officer returns to the small South Carolina town in which he was raised. He makes a promise at his mother's death-bed to clear the name of his elder brother, who was executed as a child by the people there.

'Carolina Skeletons' is very loosely based upon the real life story of George Stinney Jr, though it should not be viewed as a bio-pic.

Buy Carolina Skeletons on DVD

A Possible Miscarriage of Justice in Carolina Skeletons

Did small-town America use the law to lynch a boy by proxy? Did the authorities use rampant racism to cover for the real murderer?

Image: Jimmy in Carolina Skeletons.In 1934, two young girls were brutally assaulted, raped, then murdered by a river in Crawfordsville, South Carolina. 

A fourteen year old boy named Linus Bragg confessed to the crime. He was summarily executed in the local gaol. 

It all seemed cut and dried.  The population of the town moved on, but some of them were harboring terrible secrets.

Thirty years later, Mother Bragg has never accepted the fact that her little boy committed those murders.  She has fought long and hard to clear his name to no avail. 

On her death-bed, she calls home her second son, Jimmy Bragg, an officer in the armed forces. She makes him promise that he won't rest until he clears Linus's name.

But he is opening a massive can of worms, which few appreciate; not least the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and a potential murderer still at large.

Trailer for Carolina Skeletons

Disturbing Implications and Claustrophobic Terror

The film-makers did their all with the resources that they had. It added up to a very poignant and moving film.

Image:  Kenn Michael as Linus Bragg

As a made-for-TV movie, Carolina Skeletons didn't have the largest budget in the world, but it makes great use of what it did secure.

Louis Gossett Jr always puts in a good performance, as does Bruce Dern. But Kenn Michael (credited as Kenny Blank) was outstanding as Linus Bragg.

I spent the majority of his scenes wanting to reach inside the screen and protect him bodily if need be.

Apparently I wasn't the only person who thought so.  Kenn was nominated in the Best Young Actor in a Television Movie category of the Young Artists Awards in 1993, for his portrayal of Linus Bragg.

Others did their jobs well, with no-one else particularly standing out for a special mention; though none of them were unbelievable in their roles either.

The cinematography and musical score were particularly good.  There was one sequence, where Jimmy Bragg is trapped in his room by someone who has just tried to run him down, which really gripped me. 

I found myself biting my lip, trying to find a way out for him.  It really brought home the claustrophobic terror of being the wrong colored skin in a predominantly racist town. Much of it was very low-key, and all the more disturbing for it.

Nor was it lost on me that the opening song, all about Linus Bragg, was reminiscent of Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit. In fact, I thought it was that song during the opening bars! And the singer obviously had her inspiration in Lady Day.  All good from where I was sitting.

Buy Carolina Skeletons novel by David Stout

The Movie is Based on a Book by David Stout

David Stout was a journalist working for the New York Times, when he heard the story of George Stinney Jr. 

He used the kernel of that true case to form the foundation of his novel. 

It was nominated in the 'Best First Book' category of both the 1988 Edgar Allan Poe and the Anthony Awards.  It won the former.

Some details do change between the novel and the movie adaptation.  Primarily the relationship between Jimmy and Linus.  In the book, Jimmy is his nephew, not his brother.

Nevertheless, it is a very gripping and poignant tale, which highlights endemic racism not just in the past, but in the modern day too.

How Closely Does Carolina Skeletons Follow the Reality of George Stinney Jr.?

In 1944, the real fourteen year old boy became the youngest person ever to be executed in an electric chair.

Image: Linus in Carolina SkeletonsNeither the book nor the movie purports to be a biography of George Stinney Jr., nor do they dramatize his story.

However, there are many recognizable correlations between fact and fiction.  George and Linus are both the same age and they lived in South Carolina. 

The main income for the town came from a saw mill, owned by a white family employing mostly black people.

The victims were both two little girls.  In fictitious Crawfordsville and the real Alcolu, the populations were ready to lynch the boy in gaol.  They were each failed by their legal counsel and other officials.  They both signed a confession.  They were both killed in the electric chair. 

In short, the background story, insofar as it affects Linus Bragg and is told in flash-backs in the film, fits almost perfectly over the top of the true life experiences of George Stinney Jr.  Hence the execution scene in this movie often being used to illustrate documentaries or articles about the real teenager.

The scene where Linus Bragg is strapped into the electric chair is one of the most memorable and disturbing moments in the movie. Bizarrely though, it doesn't go far enough. 

In the movie, Linus enters clutching a Bible, which is taken from him.  In reality, George was so small that he ended up having to sit on his Bible, just so the electrodes could fit him.  In the film, Linus's wrist strap breaks and he reaches out for Junior.  In reality, the adult mask was too big for George and fell off, revealing his terrified and tear-stained face as he was being killed.

For all of its poignancy, the electrocution scene understated the real execution of George Stinney Jr.

But if it held back there, it didn't in the rest of the story.  While there is plenty of suspicion that George was innocent, it's blatantly stated that Linus didn't do it.  The whole plot is founded upon the fact that the boy was a patsy for the real murderer.

Learn More About George Stinney Jr

Activists are trying to clear the name of the youngest person to be killed in America's electric chair. They have the blessing of his family.

Carolina Skeletons Does NOT Pass the Bechdel Test

It was even struggling on the 'named' women part, which the majority of movies manage to accommodate!

Image: Cassie in Carolina SkeletonsThe Bechdel Test comprises of three simple questions designed to assess the representation of females in a film.

To pass the first, there needs to be more than one named female character in a movie.  Carolina Skeletons sort of has several.  So it does pass.

But I say 'sort of' because they aren't full names.  The murder victims are Cindy Lou and Sue Ellen, but their surnames are never given.  James and Linus's mother is just billed as Mother Bragg.

Even the main female protagonist is only called Cassie.  We can extrapolate that her maiden name was Stoker, but she's been married and divorced since.  She may still carry her ex-husband's family name, and that is never given.

Only one woman in the entire movie can be named with any confidence - Sarah Cody.  She is called 'Sarah' by her husband, then later referred to as Mrs Cody.  Yet she's only a cameo role.

Otherwise the credits talk only about city clerks and secretaries.  Job titles with no given name.

The second and third parts of the Bechdel Test asks that two named female characters have a conversation.  It cannot be about a male character. 

At one point 'city clerk' calls down the stairs of the archives room to remind Cassie that it's five o'clock.  Cassie responds that they are just coming.  Does that count as a conversation?  I might have given it a scraped through pass, if 'city clerk' had actually been named.

Also Sue Ellen whispered into Cindy Lou's ear, but that was apparently about Linus's age.  Plus Cindy Lou didn't actually answer her.

With the best will in the world, I can't crowbar a pass on the Bechdel Test for this movie.

Three questions are asked of each movie. They are so simple that it would be harder to fail than pass. They examine the role of females in that film. Nearly half fail.
Updated: 01/24/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 09/28/2014

It is quite powerful. Some scenes stay with you, though it is of its time.

RuthCox on 09/26/2014

With George Stinney Jr. the real life boy the movie topic is drawn from and with Louis Gosset Jr. playing the lead role, I can imagine this one powerful film.

JoHarrington on 10/18/2012

It's nice when a wish is so quickly granted! I'm certainly going to be watching it. I can't say 'looking forward' to watching it, as that seems inappropriate given the subject matter. But it will help contextualise a lot. The producers and writers have been down there, in the actual locations, talking with eye-witnesses.

Ember on 10/18/2012

Oh, sweet deal :)

JoHarrington on 10/18/2012

Funny you should say that, because it is going to happen. It was announced in July this year, so it's only at the research stage at the minute. http://suite101.com/article/george-st...

Ember on 10/18/2012

This seems like a really interesting movie, but I think it would be great if they had an actual biography about George Stinney Jr. ^.^

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