Learn about one of the most infamously unjust trials of the 20th Century.
Dir. Peter Miller, 2007, 80 min
We’re supposed to learn lessons from the past. We don’t. Looking at human history, one could draw up a case study of sustained iniquities performed in very similar ways. All this has happened before, and all of this shall happen again, so to speak (if you want to put it with an incredibly nerdy reference). The Sacco and Vanzetti case drew worldwide attention, and inspired some judicial reform, but nothing has really changed. The government still suppresses whoever we don’t like – they just do it in more subtle ways. Keeping that in mind makes watching Sacco and Vanzetti an even more sobering experience than it would normally be.
America is the land of immigrants, yet both historically and contemporarily, we really hate immigrants. At some point or another, every single ethnic minority has been a scapegoat for the social ills of the day. Right now it’s mostly Mexicans. In the 1920’s, the demonic foreigners were white, believe it or not. Italians were viewed with suspicion, stemming from anti-Catholic sentiments and stereotypes about their “inherent criminality.” Naturally, if you keep saying that a specific group is bad, it’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy, and many Italians during this time joined the nascent anarchist movement in the United States. Much like The Weathermen, they fought institutional corruption and inequality through violence, which led to a miniature red scare that gripped the country. It was in this environment that the Sacco and Vanzetti case came about.
Ferdinand Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian immigrants. Both had come to America as teenagers in hopes of better lives. Both found that America wasn’t quite the land of opportunity that they were promised, and fell under the sway of Luigi Galleani, a great advocate of anarchist violence. In April 1920, two men were killed in a factory robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested for the crime. What ensued was a seven-year legal battle that caught worldwide attention. The pair went through two trials (one for Vanzetti on an unrelated charge), two Supreme Court appeals, an appeal to the governor, a committee review, and more before they were finally executed in 1927. At every step of the way, they were beset with racist bias that overrode every logical concern.
For all we know, Sacco and Vanzetti could have done it. They probably didn’t, but we’ll never know for sure. The issue isn’t really their guilt or innocence, it’s that they had a ridiculously unfair trial, one where the concept of presumption of innocence held no sway. The judge was infamous for his anti-radical views. Another prisoner confessed to the crime that they were accused of, but this was ignored. The testimony of Italian witnesses who could attest in the duo’s favor was distorted or outright thrown out. Forensic evidence was not in the prosecution’s favor, but this too was overlooked. The sad fact is that authorities scooped up the first sufficiently suspicious people they could find, and a pair of Italian anarchists fit the bill nicely. There was no concern over justice for the murdered men, only for checking off a case as “solved.”
The documentary feels extremely PBS-ish, which is far from an inherently bad thing. There’s Ken Burns-y photographic strobing and modern-day historians and experts explaining the context of the times. Tony Shaloub and John Turturro voice the archived words of Sacco and Vanzetti. Their performances aren’t anything special, but celebrity voice actors in documentaries rarely are. The problem with the PBS-style approach is that the movie feels excessively educational and not empathetic enough at times. In fact, most of the emotion comes from the talking heads saying, “Hey, isn’t it sad that this happened? Those guys must have felt really bad about this.” Too much tell, not enough show.
American anti-immigration hysteria is alive and well today, but the doc’s attempt to connect past and present is little more than a coda. After Sacco and Vanzetti’s tale is done, it shows some footage about contemporary profiling of Muslims. More telling instead of showing. It’s a subject worth bringing up, of course, but with such brief attention given to it, then is there really any point to it? It’s fine to leave the question open instead of answering it in such an abridged manner.
Sacco and Vanzetti succeeds on the strength of its very sad, sadly relevant story and fails on the weakness of it’s heart. It’s an accomplished work of historical storytelling but something of a dud when it comes to truly conveying history. After all, what more is history than a nice story if it can’t be applied to what’s going on today?