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NSU cancels racial injustice documentary, amid concerns over political climate

 The documentary "The Poison Garden" recounts a series of unjust convictions and killings of Black South Floridians and examines how inequality continues to play out in the court system today.
"The Poison Garden" screenshot
"The Poison Garden" screenshot
The documentary "The Poison Garden" recounts a series of unjust convictions and killings of Black South Floridians and examines how inequality continues to play out in the court system today. Nova Southeastern University was slated to host a screening of the film but cancelled it after staff raised concerns the event could strike a political nerve.

Editor's Note: this story includes details of a lynching and links to disturbing images.

A documentary telling the story of the 1935 lynching of a Black man in Fort Lauderdale has been shown in South Florida and been accepted to film festivals in New York and Los Angeles.

But a planned screening and a panel discussion last month at Nova Southeastern University in Davie — as part of Black History month — got nixed after a university official raised concerns it delves into a topic they deemed too controversial.

NSU’s decision comes at a time when Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has lashed out against “woke” policies of universities and businesses. And nearly a year after the governor and Republican lawmakers passed what DeSantis dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act,” which placed restrictions on how race-related issues can be addressed in schools and workplace training — though a legal battle continues over whether the restrictions are constitutional.

The lynching of 37 year old Rubin Stacy is recounted in a play and a documentary film called “The Poison Garden,” produced by husband and wife team Chris Mancini and Evellyn Santos.

“The movie presents an opportunity to hear history right from people who lived it,” Mancini said. “They thought that was a great opportunity.”

The film recounts unjust convictions and killings of Black Americans in South Florida and also looks at inequality in the court system today.

According to internal emails that Mancini shared with WLRN, NSU planned to invite university VIPs to the event and host a pre-show reception for the guests.

At the planned screening, students and faculty were going to get the chance to hear directly from panelists like Naves, retired Florida International University professor and historian Marvin Dunn, and Herman Lindsey, who was wrongfully sentenced to death in Broward County in 2006, before being exonerated and released.

An NSU spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

A lynching in Fort Lauderdale

Rubin Stacy, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel and historical accounts, was a farmhand who knocked on the door of a white woman's home to ask for a drink of water in the summer of 1935. A mob of white vigilantes murdered him for it.

White onlookers came to ogle at Stacy’s lifeless body hanging from a pine tree. Photographs of the horrific scene show it was something of a social event for white residents.

Men donned button-down shirts, ties and straw hats. Little girls wore crisp collared dresses. On their faces, an expression of calm — their cruelty laid bare in the South Florida sunlight.

In the documentary film, Stacy’s niece, Anne Naves — now in her 90s — speaks out about the horrors of that day in 1935 and the importance of remembering that dark history. She was 8 years old when her uncle was lynched.

“It does bring out some of the injustice and some of the things that many people may not have known about,” Naves says in the film. “This is just the beginning.”

Photographs of Stacy's body — and the white children who watched — were used by the NAACP to rally support for a national anti-lynching bill. The legislation never passed.

In 2022, local officials renamed a section of Davie Boulevard after Stacy, memorializing his life and condemning his brutal killing at the hands of a white mob.

NSU staffer: Political climate ‘a real consideration’

Still, Santos says too few South Floridians know about the lynching of Stacy and its significance to local Black history.

“It's important for people to know that and understand why South Florida is the way it is today based on what happened back then,” Santos said. “That's what we want to bring to light.”

But in an email discussing the plans for the film screening, an NSU staffer raised concerns about holding the event in the current political climate.

“I want to focus on the historical accounts from the incidents in the [1930s] rather than delve into the elements that are so politically charged now. It is unfortunate but a real consideration,” the NSU staffer wrote.

“When we asked [NSU] why, they said well, they didn't want it to be provocative. They didn’t want to cause a problem,” Mancini told WLRN.

The NSU staffer also raised concerns that an actor in the film is listed on the state’s sex offender registry and that showcasing the production might alienate children and families.

Mancini pointed out that the university appears to provide access to other films that feature or are produced by convicted sex offenders, through an online streaming service for students.

Even though NSU is a private university, Mancini says it’s still affected by state policies restricting how race and history can be talked about in public schools.

“Even though this movie tells a terrible true tale about the course of racism in South Florida since the 1930s, there are certain powers that be in this county that would rather not confront that,” he said. “They would rather not face the past.”

Despite NSU’s decision not to show the documentary, Mancini and Santos said it won’t stop them from screening their film and shining a light on this chapter of South Florida history.
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As a Tallahassee native, Kate Payne grew up listening to WFSU. She loves being part of a station that had such an impact on her. Kate is a graduate of the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts. With a background in documentary and narrative filmmaking, Kate has a broad range of multimedia experience. When she’s not working, you can find her rock climbing, cooking or hanging out with her cat.