In June, 1944, George Stinney, a 14-year-old black South Carolina boy, became the youngest child legally executed in the United States, when he was electrocuted after being convicted of the murder of two white girls less than three months earlier. The case is widely considered one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in this country, and Stinney was eventually exonerated in 2014. Before that, however, the case, and the question of who actually killed those two girls, became the basis for a solid 1991 TV-movie, “Carolina Skeletons,” based on a novel by David Stout.
The majority of “Carolina Skeletons” takes place in the early 1970’s in rural South Carolina where the murders occurred (in the movie, they take place in 1934). Louis Gossett, Jr., stars as James Bragg, the younger brother of the executed boy (called Linus Bragg in the film). Bragg, a Green Berets colonel, returns to the town he left years earlier to tend to his dying mother, and, at her request, he starts investigating the case all over again. The current sheriff, Junior Stoker (Bruce Dern), is the son of the sheriff (G.D. Spradlin) at the time the murders occurred, and a number of others who were involved in the investigation are still alive and not too keen on Bragg poking around. When a couple of the witnesses turn up dead under mysterious circumstances, Sheriff Stoker gets involved as well.
On one level, “Carolina Skeletons” works fairly well as a mystery. It’s clear from the opening flashbacks that detail the murders that Linus didn’t do it, but finding the actual killer requires some good detective work by both Bragg and Stoker. The teleplay was written by veteran screenwriter Tracy Keenan Wynn, who does a good job of building suspense and disguising his clues. Whodunit fans will enjoy this movie simply for those reasons.
However, “Carolina Skeletons” is even more effective as a commentary on racial relations in the South. There are only a couple of scenes set in 1934, but they are among the most chilling and memorable in the film. In one, the older Sheriff Stoker is able to coax Linus into signing the confession the sheriff prepared (and which was practically the only “evidence” of the boy’s guilt), not through threats but by adopting a gentle, fatherly tone with the frightened child. Later, the movie depicts Linus’ execution in horrifying detail. Nothing graphic is shown, but the underlying horror of the situation is powerful, both for the condemned Linus and for Junior, who was brought by his father to see the execution.
The more recent scenes provide fascinating details about the changing nature of racial relations in the early 1970’s, only a few years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Some of the scenes in the movie are fairly predictable, like a late-night Klan appearance at the house where Bragg is staying and white characters’ frequent use of the N-word. But the most effective moments are quieter, like the sight of the now-barred “Colored” entrance to the courthouse that Bragg first tries to use before being told by a deputy he can go in the front door. Later, when he visits the town librarian (Melissa Leo) at a luncheonette, the chill in the restaurant is palpable when he enters and talks to her.
“Carolina Skeletons” only falters when it tries too hard to be an action film. Gossett is quite convincing when he mixes it up with a couple of local rednecks, but the fight scenes and scattered gunplay seem a bit out of place. In addition, from a technical standpoint, the Amazon Prime video that I saw wasn’t the world’s highest quality, no doubt because of the film’s origins as a TV-movie and the lack of high quality master materials. However, for the most part, the movie itself is high quality, with a number of very good character actors in supporting roles, including prototypical redneck Clifton James, Bill Cobbs, and a very young Richard Jenkins. As I write this review, we are 80 years removed from the murders as portrayed in the movie, 70 years from the actual killings in the Stinney case, and nearly 50 years from the events shown in the rest of the film. “Carolina Skeletons” serves as a valuable, and well-made, reminder of the actual skeletons in the not-too-distant past in the South.