Saturday, March 26, 2005

Review of Home of the Brave

Four stars (of four)

Because of the quirky and often rigged way we create and remember heroes in this culture, it’s very probable that you don’t know anything about Viola Liuzzo. That she was a mother of five who drove down from Michigan to Alabama to take part in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965. That while driving a young African-American man between points along the march she was gunned down by Ku Klux Klan members. That her death, believed to be the only case of a white woman murdered during the Civil Rights unrest of the period, became an intense national story. And finally, that the story died away, and a trial in a small Alabama courtroom acquitted the murderers, despite the presence of a witness.

You might think that I’ve just given the substance of Paola di Florio’s Home of the Brave away, but this fine documentary packs much more in its 75 minutes than a simple resurrection of the Viola Liuzzo story. There are many layers here. A significant one is the exploration of whether elements of the U.S. government were complicit in both the murder and the rewriting of history to make Liuzzo less sympathetic. Central to this excellent research is the portrayal of the FBI under the surreal autocracy of J. Edgar Hoover. We are also shown small interviews with a few still-living Washington power brokers of the era, including LBJ’s Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. The residue of the investigatory work of the film is not a well-defined understanding of exactly what happened, but a strong whiff of the machinations that were common-place at the time of the Selma march. It is a disturbing portrait, and an instructive lesson to those trying to better understand the possible resulting damage of expanding law enforcement powers in these PATRIOT Act times.

And then there is the Liuzzo family. Many documentaries have been made about forgotten heroes and governmental injustice, but what makes Home of the Brave more whole than many of those other films is the focus on the children Viola Liuzzo’s murderers left behind. Simply put, these children are now middle-aged victims of a psychological war, and all show its effects. The surviving family has done significant research on the murder investigation and FBI, reviewing the bloody crime scene photographs time and time again. The pain from it all has taken the siblings in widely different philosophical and psychological directions. It is these divergences that make Home of the Brave an even more realistic and full look not only at the Liuzzo family, but our entire society.

Di Florio follows daughter Mary as she treks back first to the African-American woman who took the Liuzzo children in after the murder, and then down to Selma. She and the filmmakers go over Selma’s infamous Edmund Pettus bridge that Mary has only seen from photographs and TV, and we share the chilling, threatened feeling the bridge evokes. Along the way, Mary tries to connect with her brother Tony, who has cut contact with his family and escaped about as far from society as you can get. Meanwhile, brother Tommy is still up in Michigan, responding to both his mother’s murder and the government in a very different way than one might expect.

Other siblings are interviewed as well, and the fractured portrait that results is sobering and complex, especially in these times of political polarization and debates on the pros/cons of infringement on civil liberties. In fact, watching Home of the Brave resonates strongly because the issues of 1965 glare just as starkly today. The murder of Viola Liuzzo is instructive to those of us who think the U.S. has never been more screwed up than it is now. We might be in bad shape, but things weren’t any better during the mid-1960s and in many ways were worse. At the same time, the film reminds us that our country was threatened not long ago with both vicious, unbridled racism and the legal despotism of J. Edgar Hoover. Yet, can we stop these atrocities from happening again? And what are the costs of trying? Anyone with an interest in these questions, and in seeing the effects of those trying to answer them will be well served in viewing Home of the Brave.

No comments: