Although nowhere near as well known as Martin Luther King Jr. or Medgar Evers, Viola Liuzzo earned her place in American history by becoming a martyr to the cause of civil rights. A white woman who was an activist long before it became fashionable to be one, Liuzzo could have chosen to live her life in quiet anonymity, safely ensconced with her husband and five children in their middle class home in Detroit. Instead, she headed to the South to lend her services as a nurse for the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, a day that came to be known as "Black Sunday." For on that day, Liuzzo was gunned down while driving along a deserted road by four members of the Ku Klux Klan. "Home of the Brave" tells us her story.
In form and style, this is a fairly conventional documentary, combining footage from the past with present-day interviews with friends and family members of the victim. Through both memories and documented evidence, the movie paints the portrait of an inspiring woman who recoiled at the injustices she saw in the world around her and ended up paying the ultimate price for her consuming need to rectify them. The most eye-opening aspect of the film involves the way in which after her death, Liuzzo became the object of greater government scrutiny than even the men who perpetrated the crime.
The movie shows the rippling effect Viola's death had not only on society as a whole but on the lives of her children as well. It was her murder that inspired President Johnson to sign into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which essentially ended the use of poll taxes and literacy tests for voting in this country. As to her children, one of them - her oldest son - has since become a recluse living in the backwoods of Alabama, while her other son, Tommy, has become a leader of the Michigan militia, eventually being forced to go underground himself after 9/11 and the implementation of the Patriot Act. Given the fact that it was the FBI's own undercover agent riding along with the Klansmen who allegedly pulled the trigger that fateful night and that many of the investigators' findings regarding the case seem questionable at best, is Tommy justified in his anti-government paranoia? It is this question that haunts not only Tommy throughout his life but the audience throughout the movie.
Nevertheless, the film always comes back to Viola and the powerful part she played in helping to change the course of history. However, the movie does not wear rose-colored glasses, for it informs us that, even today, racism is alive and well in the Deep South. This is shown most remarkably in the image we see of a black doll strung up in a rural person's backyard, and in an elderly white couple's response of "I don't know" to the simple question of whether or not they're happy that blacks forty-plus years ago received the right to vote. That is probably the most chilling moment in a movie filled with chilling moments.
If "Home of the Brave" has a weakness, it is one for which the movie itself cannot be blamed. Unlike the subject of many documentaries, there are no clips of Viola speaking and no home movie depictions of her before her death. We see her only in still photographs and even those are highly limited in number. As a result, she remains an essentially shadowy figure, one whom it is easier for us to see as an icon for a cause than as a fully fleshed-out human being. The reflections of the people who knew her are certainly helpful in this regard, but they can only go so far in making her come to life on screen.
Still, that is a minor flaw in an otherwise sterling tribute to a truly exceptional and courageous woman, one whose death helped to bring new hope and life to so many others.
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