Jonah M. Hirsch’s Fixed Point Films is developing a movie about the 1906 lynching of a black man in Tennessee and the landmark legal battle that followed, Variety has learned exclusively.
The banner, in a low six-figure deal, has acquired rights to Mark Curriden and Leroy Phillips, Jr.’s book “Contempt of Court: The Turn-of-the-Century Lynching That Launched a Hundred Years of Federalism.” Hirsch will produce and Stuart Stout’s MFWH Productions will executive produce.
The victim, Ed Johnson, was murdered in his home town of Chattanooga, Tenn., after being sentenced to death for the alleged rape of a white woman. Johnsons’s court-appointed attorneys decided not to appeal the ruling, but two local black attorneys — Noah Parden and Styles Hutchins — took up the case, going first to federal court and then to the Supreme Court to argue that Johnson’s constitutional rights had been violated.
Parden traveled to Washington, D.C., and met with U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, who agreed to have the court hear the appeal. The court issued a stay of execution two days later, but a mob broke into the jail where Johnson was held, without interference from the local Sheriff Joseph Shipp, then lynched him. They left a note that read, “To Justice Harlan. Come get your n—– now.”
As a result, Shipp and several others were convicted of contempt of court in United States v. Shipp, the only criminal trial ever held by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Shipp not only made the work of the mob easy, but in effect aided and abetted it,” the court said.
“Contempt of Court” was published in 1999 by Faber and Faber. Hirsch said the book served as a catalyst for overturning Johnson’s rape conviction in 2000.
“The Ed Johnson lynching and ensuing Supreme Court trial represents one of the most heartbreaking, yet also heroic stories of how race and law are deeply intertwined in American history,” Hirsch said. “This story of how justice is carried out in America is as relevant today as it was over a 100 years ago.”
Stout and Hirsch’s other project in development, “Hope’s Wish,” was set up in 2011 with “Brokeback Mountain” writer Diana Ossana scripting. The project is based on Stout’s book about his daughter, who was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness at age 12 and spent her remaining time helping raise funds for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Hirsch announced Monday that Charlie Stratton has signed to direct “Hope’s Wish.” Stratton’s credits include 2013’s “In Secret,” starring Elizabeth Olsen and Oscar Isaac.
Stratton is represented by CAA, Judi Farkas Management, and Diane Golden of Katz, Golden & Rosenman.