On 12 July 1917, the sheriff of Bisbee, Arizona put into motion the arrest and deportation of over 1200 striking mine workers at the direction of the Phelps Dodge Corporation. They were sent, penniless and in cattle cars, to New Mexico to an uncertain fate. The current inhabitants of that town honor those deportees, a century later, and reenact “Bisbee ’17.”
Director Robert Greene shows us a little known chapter in America that tells of a shameful chapter in our history. The large mining companies, of which Phelps Dodge was the biggest, were the de facto ruling order in the Bisbee area. In 1917, the US was on the verge of entering the Great War and the mining industry were in the midst of a boom.
The miners, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Eastern Europe, were at the bottom of the economic barrel in Bisbee and worked under dangerous, and often deadly, conditions. The International Workers of the World (also called the Wobblies) sent representatives to Bisbee to organize the mine workers. The companies were on one side and the union was on the other and the miners were stuck, helpless, in the middle of this social and economic battle.
Director Greene does an earnest job in telling this unknown piece of history. It brings us to the time in 1917 as it describes the events that led to what became the Bisbee Deportation. Equally, it follows its citizens, in 2017, as they plan and put into motion the Centennial “celebration” with the recreation of the sad event. The filmmakers added some “artistic” interludes outside the core stories that unnecessarily pad the “Bisbee ‘17” to nearly two hours. I give it a B-.
A hundred years ago, a little known horrifying chapter of American history played out in Arizona, when the The Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) helped unionize copper miners who went on strike for better wages and safer working conditions. Using the war effort as their public, 'patriotic' rationale, local copper mining companies with the assistance of Sheriff Wheeler who deputized 200 civilians, rounded up 1,300 immigrant miners and their supporters, loaded them onto cattle cars and dumped them in the desert in "Bisbee '17."
Documentarian Robert Greene has already illustrated a creative approach to telling true stories with his "Kate Plays Christine." He does something similar here, although the effort involves an entire town, much like Italy's Monticchiello in "Spettacolo." As actors and locals are assigned their parts for a centennial recreation, we hear from residents, most stating that they 'can see both sides.' The rhetoric is revealing (one man phrases it as 'the good and the bad,' clearly implying right and wrong while claiming neutrality), one woman pointing out the obvious - that the people who live in Bisbee never left Bisbee. At a committee meeting, even after someone notes that the vast majority of those deported were immigrants, others insist the deed wasn't about union busting or deporting immigrants, but about 'keeping our women and children safe.' In the politics of fear, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Greene has an odd detour to Tombstone he could have excised, its sole point apparently historical rivalry with Bisbee, but he continues to build to his emotional climax, the 'company' deciding on a musical approach. After it is noted that the I.W.W. was well armed with songs (there was a lot of indignation when the union used the tune from 'Battle Hymn of the Republic and changed the words, performed here by Fernando Serrano, the actor portraying an immigrant miner) but the mining companies were not, we're treated to 'We, the Titans of Industry.' When the deportation's legality was questioned, it was countered with 'The Law of Necessity,' more rationalization of a decidedly illegal event. But something quite miraculous happens when the deportation itself is recreated. The act of holding neighbors at gunpoint and loading them onto cattle cars makes even those who've convinced themselves of ancestors' righteousness uncomfortable. We see it in the eyes of brothers enlisted to play the brothers on opposite sides. Their surviving family lays gravestones of these conflicted siblings side by side. One is left wondering if, at least in this one town of a deeply red state, people have begun to reconsider their positions on immigration today.
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