Paola di Florio’s provocative and haunting “Home of the Brave” explores the life and legacy of slain demonstrator Viola Liuzzo — the only white woman killed during the U.S. civil rights movement. Transfiguring material ordinarily the province of TV shows like “Dateline NBC” or “American Justice,” di Florio emerges with a serenely powerful, handcrafted film that navigates into a place Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called “the tangled discords of our nation.” Sure to be the topic of much discussion, pic looks to become a must-have festival docu, followed by specialized theatrical release and cable bookings.
A 39-year-old wife of a Detroit Teamster official and mother of five, Liuzzo, like many white Americans, had her eyes opened to the full intensity of the troubles in the South on Bloody Sunday — March 7, 1965 — when some 600 civil rights marchers were attacked by police on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. Two weeks later, Liuzzo was headed South to participate in King’s four-day march on Montgomery. Her skills as a nurse and ambulance driver would be needed. This was something the strong-willed Liuzzo felt she had to do, and her family knew objections would be futile.
A week later, Liuzzo was dead, fatally wounded in a drive-by shooting as she was transporting a black man, Leroy Moton, in her vehicle. Her assailants were a carload of KKK members, including an undercover FBI informant, Gary Thomas Rowe.
Though Rowe would subsequently identify the other suspects and testify against them in court, an all-white state jury acquitted the men of murder. Afterward, a federal court convicted them of civil rights violations. Some 10 years later, new evidence emerged suggesting that Rowe himself, then immune from prosecution as the result of a deal made with the government, may in fact have been the trigger man.
Docu presents a mesmerizing true-life murder mystery, as di Florio offers compelling evidence, collected by the Liuzzos over the past three decades, which suggests the official story surrounding their mother’s death may have been just that — a fiction. Why, for example, was Rowe also suspected of participation in the infamous firebombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church? Why was the FBI’s file on Liuzzo’s case three times the size of its file on the KKK at the height of the civil rights movement? And, perhaps most disconcerting, why is there documentation in that file to suggest J. Edgar Hoover was personally responsible for engineering a smear campaign against Liuzzo’s moral character?
Such matters may never be satisfactorily answered, and many filmmakers might have been content to let the story rest. Di Florio, however, digs deeper into the psyches of those left behind, building her film, like Andrew Jarecki’s “Capturing the Friedmans.”
As di Florio finds, the gruesome instant of Liuzzo’s murder is one in which Liuzzo’s children are forever trapped. For middle daughter Mary, this means the retracing of her mother’s footsteps that provides “Home of the Brave” with its basic structure. For son Tony, the notion of constitutional freedom for all has taken a more troubling permutation; he is now a high-ranking member of the Michigan Militia, distrustful of authorities and carrying a firearm wherever he goes.
Eldest son Tommy, meanwhile, has completely disappeared into the backwoods of Alabama, not far from where his mother took her fateful last ride. Though he promises to meet with Mary for the first time in 20 years for a scene in the film, he fails to show up; only a small rag doll, designed to resemble a black person bound and hanging from a tree, suggests he was there.
Throughout, di Florio keeps things moving at a breathless clip, conveying information in precise, succinct bits and never seeming to dwell too long on any one aspect of her complex tale. Musical selections on soundtrack are particularly well chosen, including the lovely Steve Vaus rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” from which pic takes its title.