Every generation or so, America goes through emotional convulsions, when fear of foreign and domestic enemies erodes the nation’s sense of tolerance and its respect for civil liberties.
The 1950s witch hunts of the McCarthy era were preceded by the Red scare of the 1920s, when millions of people and their government became convinced that wild-eyed Communists, anarchists and assorted aliens were about to overthrow the American way of life.
Symbolic of the decade was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, whose long imprisonment and ultimate execution became a cause célébre. The case triggered worldwide protests and cemented in many minds a picture of the United States as ruled by heartless capitalists bent on oppressing the working man.
Exactly 80 years after the Italian immigrants were sentenced to death in Boston on April 9, 1927, a documentary on the trial that shook the world is opening in American theaters.
In the frontlines of the fight to save the two anarchists were American Jews, who could readily identify with the two workers from a foreign land and their radical ideas.
Felix Frankfurter, then a young Harvard law professor and later Supreme Court justice, argued passionately for the men’s innocence. Over the years, Jewish writers and artists kept the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti alive, among them Ben Shahn, who produced a series of 23 paintings of the men and their trial in the early 1930s.
The ordeal of Sacco, “a good shoemaker,” and Vanzetti, “a poor fish peddler,” in the latter’s words, began after the 1920 murder and robbery of two factory employees who were carrying a large payroll.
It was not a good time to be an anarchist, especially after the movement’s radical wing had carried out a series of high-profile assassinations in Europe and of President William McKinley in the United States.
A few weeks after the crime, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and found guilty after a two-week jury trial. Over a seven-year period, the two men were held in prison and their appeals rejected, even after a third man confessed to the murder.
A blue-ribbon panel of three men, including the presidents of Harvard and M.I.T., upheld the original verdict and the two immigrants were executed Aug. 23, 1927.
The film, “Sacco and Vanzetti,” skillfully uses archival footage, artwork, music, poetry and film clips to trace the legal and political aspects of the case, and the emotions it aroused. Actors John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub read excerpts from the moving letters the two men wrote during their seven-year imprisonment, including one of Vanzetti’s last letters to his son.
“If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men,” he wrote. “I might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident.”
Filmmaker Paul Miller, who spent four years and a great deal of borrowed money to create the documentary, points to his own Jewish background as a catalyst in his effort.
“My own grandfather came to Boston as an immigrant, and like many Jewish and Italian newcomers, was brutalized by the cops,” Miller said during a phone interview. “My father was born in the Boston Jewish ghetto, and my mother couldn’t go to college because of the quota system.”
Miller, 45, was born in Canoga Park but now lives in New York.
“To many people, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was a life-changing experience, which opened their eyes to many uncomfortable truths about the United States,” he said.
Even after 80 years, the trial and its verdict are still being debated and analyzed. One study concludes that Sacco, at least, was guilty of the crime.
Miller leaves no doubt of his own sympathies and his film’s relevance to our days.
“As in the Red scare of Sacco and Vanzetti’s time, present-day Americans have allowed fear and jingoism to erode our civil liberties, scapegoat immigrants and compromise our judicial system,” he said.
“Sacco and Vanzetti” opens April 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. “Sacco and Vanzetti” opens April 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information on the film, visit www.firstrunfeatures.com or www.willowpondfilms.com.