Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: The Melting Pot Comes to a Boil

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday September 14, 2007

The names and their general significance may still be familiar, but the details of the lives and trials of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti have faded over time. The names have become shorthand for injustice, for political persecution, for America’s tendency to at times fall disastrously short of its ideals. Yet while these two men remain potent symbols, symbols do not live and breathe.  

Sacco and Vanzetti, an excellent documentary by Peter Miller, newly released on DVD, restores the humanity to these men, these Italian immigrants who came to America in search of the land of liberty and opportunity, only to find that much of the American Dream was just that.  

They found themselves faced with the conundrum of a nation of immigrants that despised immigrants, and Italians were ranked among the lowest of the low. They found a land where economic exploitation was rampant, and where opportunity was plentiful only for those who could afford it.  

The film uses photographs and archival footage of Sacco and Vanzetti as well as first-hand accounts and impassioned testimony from historians to paint a picture of the men, the times, the turmoil and fallout of their trial and persecution. But the most moving device is the readings, by John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub, of letters written by the two men from their prison cells. Vanzetti at one point wrote to his sister back home in Italy, telling her, “This is no longer the America that excited your imagination. America, dear sister, is called the land of liberty, but in no other country on Earth does a man tremble before his fellow man like here.” Other letters to family and friends reveal the two as men of great dignity and resilience, facing death with bravery, honor and sadness—sadness not for themselves but for their loved ones and for the wayward path of their adopted homeland. They spoke little to no English upon their arrival, yet by the time they faced execution each man had acquired an eloquence rarely attained by many native speakers.  

They were anarchists, non-violent as best anyone can tell, whose politics stemmed from first-hand experience of capitalism run amok. They came with dreams of democracy, liberty, opportunity and, perhaps above all, fairness and the rule of law. Yet what they discovered was the grim reality behind the facade, and in their search for answers to these vexing problems they settled on anarchism as the ideal solution.  

Some details may come as a surprise to many viewers. For instance, though it is readily apparent that neither of the men was involved in the murder for which they were convicted, it is not only possible that they knew the murderers but that they may have had knowledge of the crime before it occurred. The fact is, much of the case is still shrouded in mystery. 

What is known, however, is that two men were targeted for their ethnicity and their political beliefs, that evidence against them was falsified, and that neither man received anything resembling a fair trial. The story, of course, contains many parallels with modern-day America, links that are clear and obvious. But that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from hitting the point with excessive force in the final moment. It is a forgivable misstep in an otherwise fluid and informative documentary that gives shape, shading and meaning to one of the most egregious miscarriages of justice in the land of the First Amendment.  


Blood in the Face, another documentary examining the face of American bigotry, just released on DVD, was made in 1991. And if its subject matter no longer seems shocking or even surprising, that’s hardly the filmmakers’ fault. A film about neo-nazis and the threat of terrorism from within America’s heartland just doesn’t pack quite the punch in might have in the days before the Oklahoma City bombing. 

The title comes from a racist leader’s description of who should control America: white people, he says, those who can “show blood in the face,” and he demonstrates this by slapping his cheek to bring about a rosy blush. 

Filmmakers Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty and James Ridgeway enlisted the newly famous Michael Moore to assist in interviewing a stunningly ignorant group of American fascists, but don’t expect a Michael Moore film here by any means. In fact, the man is barely recognizable in voice or profile. There is a bit of humor here, some confrontation and some point-blank questioning, but nothing like the style Moore has employed since 1989’s Roger and Me. It’s just not necessary. This is a group of people so misguided, so foolish, so narrow-minded and mean, that all one has to do is give them the rhetorical rope and let them hang themselves from their own burning crucifixes. So we just watch and wait and sigh as these self-proclaimed chosen ones struggle to choose their words, stumbling more often than not into rhetorical labyrinths that twist and turn and fold back on themselves, eventually spitting the speaker out at exactly the point where he entered. “Why are whites superior?” they ask themselves, and the answer, distilled from rambling rants about Hitler, the Bible and Manifest Destiny, repeats the question: “Because they’re white.” Or, more accurately, “Because I’m white,” as, oddly enough, there seems to be little support for their cause among non-whites. 



Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco as depicted by artist Ben Shahn.