The name of Viola Liuzzo may not be familiar today, but nearly four decades ago she occupied a central place in the American psyche. Liuzzo was the only white woman who was murdered during the height of the civil rights movement; she was fatally shot while transporting a black teenage boy on a lonely Alabama highway following the historic voter registration march in Selma.
Paola di Florio’s compassionate documentary “Home of the Brave” pays tribute to Liuzzo’s memory and bravery. As a woman ahead of her time, Liuzzo was not afraid to challenge the conversative limitations which American society placed on women and minorities. The film also highlights the outrageous smear campaign which J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI conducted against Liuzzo after her murder, which was based largely on the uncomfortable fact that an undercover FBI informant was among the men responsible for her death.
Liuzzo was an uncommonly progressive woman in an era when women were expected to be subservient housewives. Her first marriage failed and she sought a divorce, which was a virtual taboo in the pre-feminist America. She remarried a Detroit Teamsters official and raised a family, but she became restless as a stay-at-home mother. When the Roman Catholic Church cited doctrine which claimed that her stillborn child could not go to Heaven, she left that faith and joined the Unitarian religion. She enrolled in college and sought membership in the NAACP.
Incensed by the television news reports of the violence in the South against the civil rights workers, the 39-year-old Liuzzo volunteered to be part of the massive Selma-to-Montgomery march. Her murder attracted national attention, and the killers were identified as members of the Ku Klux Klan. An all-white jury acquitted the killers of murder, but a later federal trial convicted them on civil rights violation charges.
Almost immediately after her death, bizarre reports of Liuzzo’s alleged drug usage and sexual relations with black men began to filter into the press. Her husband was branded in the media as having Mafia ties. Later investigations found that the FBI compiled a thousand-page dossier on Liuzzo, which was unprecedented given her lack of national visibility before her death. The Liuzzo family was harassed for the longest time by hostile neighbors who called them “nigger lovers” and who threw garbage and stones at their home.
“Home of the Brave” brings forth the long-forgotten news footage of Liuzzo’s death back into focus, including gruesome autopsy photographs. The film also follows her now-adult daughter Mary on a pilgrimage back to Selma, where she meets the people who knew Liuzzo in her final days. There is also a visit to another of her children, Tony, whose disgust with the US government led him to join a fringe militia group.
“Home of the Brave” is one of the most important films of the year. The film’s dissection of Hoover’s FBI will serve as an eerie parallel to anyone who’s been following the wreckage and ruin which John Ashcroft’s Justice Department has brought to the American judicial system – a disastrous assault against law-abiding citizens in the name of preserving a chilling status quo. The civil rights struggle presented in the film provides a timeless reminder that no country can honestly call itself a democracy if any segment of its population is denied full access to basic liberties. Discrimination against anyone for any reason (race, gender, religion, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation and physical disability) is an outrage to mind, soul and spirit.
Even more important is the long-overdue honor paid to Viola Liuzzo’s life and martyrdom, and as well as the tribute given to her brave family. Liuzzo’s death was not in vain and “Home of the Brave” is a powerful film worthy of a truly extraordinary American.