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Globe reporter tells how his Boston crime boss story made it to film

MIDDLEBURY — The third annual Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival continued its tradition of inviting special guests to talk about their experiences and accomplishments in filmmaking and beyond.
One of the guests this year, Dick Lehr, is a prominent author, journalist and screenwriter based in Boston. Lehr is co-author of “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal,” which became the basis for the 2015 film “Black Mass,” which starred Johnny Depp as the notorious crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger.
The film screened on Friday, Aug. 25, in the Marquis Theater, followed by an on-stage talk with festival Artistic Director Jay Craven and a more in-depth discussion with the two in the municipal building about Lehr’s work. Both venues were packed with community members and filmmakers.
“I can’t think of a more heinous criminal depicted in the history of film,” Craven said, commenting on the absolute realism of the movie adaptation. Lehr noted that even in the entire gangster history in America, Bulger could be considered the “most notorious,” because of his accomplishment in forging an unprecedented corrupt relationship with the FBI, most notably with John Connelly and John Morris.
Lehr’s experience covering Bulger and the FBI’s story as a reporter for Spotlight, the investigative reporting unit of The Boston Globe, was more complicated than what the fast-paced movie depicts. In the summer of 1988, Lehr interviewed a retired FBI supervisor to confirm the rumors about Bulger and the FBI. He started recording their conversation.
“And it’s good to have the tape recorder because I would’ve dropped my pencil and my jaw would’ve just dropped open,” Lehr said. “What I was hearing was just so unbelievable.”
To learn the full scope of the Bulger story, the gripping film is not enough. “There’s so much time, so much history here to make a two-hour movie out of 20 years, and it gets compressed and rearranged,” said Lehr.
One issue with the film is that it adopts a narrative that “Connelly and Morris were two bad apples.” The record, however, says that corruption in the FBI was deeply ingrained at the time. Yet most of the agents involved were able to dodge the bullet, and so there was never a “full understanding of the scope of the corruption.”
The account of Connelly and Morris as the only two bad guys actually continued in real life, and that has led to Lehr’s increased skepticism about the FBI’s credibility. “They’ve done an enormous amount of good stuff,” he said. “But they are so PR-conscious.”
Lehr also talked about his latest work “The Birth of a Movement,” a non-fiction about D. W. Griffith’s immensely popular yet deeply racist film “Birth of A Nation” and its consequences. The film was technologically groundbreaking, but its horrifying content proved dangerous.
In 1979, Lehr, working as reporter for the Hartford Courant, decided to test David Duke’s claims that the secret Ku Klux Klan was welcoming hundreds of new members in Connecticut.
“So I had this young crazy idea to join the Klan in Connecticut, and we will figure out the leader and the numbers,” he said. “I did that and it wasn’t hard.” A secret meeting in Connecticut, at which Duke screened “Birth of a Nation,” turned out to draw only a dozen people.
“Fake news,” both Craven and Lehr commented.
Both “Black Mass” and “The Birth of a Movement” have been made into movies, and another one of Lehr’s books, “The Fence,” is undergoing development. “The Fence” chronicles the cover-up of a police brutality case against black policeman Michael Cox in Boston, indicative of the corruption in the Boston police scene.
Investigative reporting, and moreover the press itself, are becoming increasingly at risk, Lehr maintained, as an unprecedented number of people are opting for what is called “alternative reality,” as Craven called it.
Lehr believes that the only way forward is to continue doing journalism. “It makes it harder and more challenging,” Lehr said. “But it makes it more important than ever to stay at the core and do honest journalism.” 

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