Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Home of the Brave is an emotional documentary on the violent reaction to the civil rights marches in Alabama in 1965, focusing on one participant, a volunteer nurse and driver from Michigan who was shot point blank on a side road while shuttling black marchers to and from demonstrations. This particular murder victim was the only white woman killed during the entire civil rights movement: Viola Liuzzo.
The show brings historical events to the personal level by telling the tale through Ms. Liuzzo's children, now middle-aged adults. One daughter traces Viola's route into Alabama and visits the hilltop where she died; a wrought-iron fence has been erected around the marker to discourage vandalism. Documentarian Paola de Florio interviews everyone who will cooperate, including random Alabama residents, and bolsters her thesis with prime-quality news film and rare photographs. Viola's death helped spur federal civil rights legislation but the cost to Ms. Liuzzo's family was a steep one.
Viola Liuzzo was a civil rights sympathizer and NAACP member who simply decided to be an activist after watching the news. Trained as a nurse, she left her home to join the Alabama demonstrations and is seen in photographs walking side-by-side with black marchers.
Alabama met these outsiders with an appalling display of hatred. The documentary shows magazines and articles claiming that the demonstrators were Communists on an orgy of sex and drugs, and that the meetings were motivated by the opportunity to have sex with white women. The smear tactics against Viola after her murder claimed that she was an 'out of control white woman' who 'had no business being there.'
Local authorities conducted a sham investigation. The killers' lies were refuted by hard evidence. They claimed that the car was moving and their shots were random, but the blood in and on the car indicate that it was standing still when Viola was shot, by a killer standing over her. Nobody took fingerprints. The three men charged with Viola's murder were acquitted in a criminal trial but convicted of lesser civil rights violations in federal courts.
Home of the Brave goes in a new direction when it is revealed that one of the three killers was actually an FBI plant. He not only did not try to stop the violence, he may have been a direct participant. The docu then assembles a number of FBI documents acquired through the Freedom of Information Act that corroborate this information and indicate that director J. Edgar Hoover was already spreading a smear campaign against Viola Liuzzo in his very first reports. Bruises on her arms (actually evidence of force used in her murder) were publicly described as heroin tracks. The news went out that the woman killed was a loose Northerner, Communist and drug user who came to Alabama to have sex with black men.
The Liuzzo family in Michigan was bombarded by hate mail, threats and harassment in other forms. Viola had five children, two of whom eventually became marginalized radicals. One son dropped out to live in the Alabama woods, ironically as a racist. We accompany the daughter on a fruitless search for him, aided (or misdirected) by his local protectors. The other son joined an anti-government militia in Michigan. Seen in interview clips, he vocalizes his fear that the government will take away his guns and leave him defenseless -- not an unreasonable attitude when one has evidence that federal authorities may have been complicit in his mother's murder. Not long after the Patriot Act came out, he too went into hiding, fearing that the feds would use their new powers to arrest him as a terrorist.
Viola Liuzzo has a place of honor in civil rights museums but her memory has faded, tarnished by lies spread by racists and our own FBI. Home of the Brave makes the issue of civil rights a personal matter with its interior portrait of a family destroyed by a mother's 'activist empathy.'
The docu employs interviews with authors of books on Ms. Liuzzo and commentators like Gloria Steinem. The filmmakers also tracked down the black man who was in the car with Viola on the day of the killing in 1965; he's visibly nervous as he gives an account of the incident which conflicts with the known facts.
Home Vision's DVD of Home of the Brave is a smartly transferred and mastered show with a sharp picture and clear sound. Stockard Channing provides the narration track. The theatrical release uses many inspirational music cues and frequently puts an emotional spin on the material; near the end Viola's daughter 'just happens' to wander into a black church next to the graveyard site and is welcomed by the congregation. The way it is shot makes the event look staged, even if it is not.
The extras include several galleries of photographic evidence and a sample of Viola Liuzzo's FBI file. Although given out through the Freedom of Information act, it has many blacked-out paragraphs. A 'state-by-state' timeline documents individuals murdered while demonstrating for civil rights in the mid-60s. 'Deleted scenes' are unused interview material with an author and a federal prosecutor who officiated at an investigation in Viola's behalf. A theatrical trailer is included as well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Home of the Brave rates:
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: Unused interviews, Viola Liuzzo's FBI file, State-by-state civil rights
timeline, Photos, memorabilia, and propoganda gallery, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 13, 2005
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson