There are many questions about the life and brutal murder of Detroiter Viola Liuzzo. Home of the Brave doesn’t answer them all. But the documentary — a quest for answers by one of Liuzzo’s grown daughters — sheds a much-deserved light on this remarkable woman and the civil rights movement she died for as she drove down a dark highway outside of Selma, Ala., with a young black man in her car.
The killing made headlines and shocked the nation, but has since been mostly forgotten.
Liuzzo was a gorgeous woman, a mother of five, the wife of a Teamsters strongman who was friends with Jimmy Hoffa, and a student at Wayne State University in the 1960s. As a nursing student, she grew passionate about the civil rights movement — so passionate that after watching coverage of “Bloody Sunday,” in which Alabama police brutally beat down civil rights marchers, Liuzzo decided to leave her family for a trip down south to march and participate. She never came home.
Liuzzo was shot in the head while driving her car. Liuzzo’s passenger, an activist she was ferrying, passed out and was not harmed.
Authorities said a car with three men in it drove up on Liuzzo as she was driving, and one of the men shot her dead.
Liuzzo’s children and others believe that, based on evidence, Liuzzo was shot by an FBI agent working undercover with the KKK, who was riding in the car that overtook Liuzzo that night.
Though the FBI “informant” identified two KKK members as the killers, a local jury found all three not guilty. A federal jury re-tried the case. Because the FBI agent had given testimony in exchange for immunity, he could not be prosecuted. Liuzzo’s children, most of whom live in Northern Michigan, sued the FBI for wrongful death, and lost. J. Edgar Hoover leaked the FBI files about the case that claimed Liuzzo was a sex- and drug-crazed woman who was riding with a “negro buck.”
It’s sad to see news clips showing Liuzzo’s children and her husband heartbroken after the murder. It is sadder to see them now — one son disappeared into the woods of Alabama, another is a leader in the Michigan militia who went into hiding after 9/11.
Home of the Brave is shocking, raw, true and a beautiful narrative and historical look at a time, a woman and her family’s tragic story. The film is strongest when it re-creates the feeling and brutality of the mid-1960s, and recounts the stories of people like Liuzzo, a woman who seemed an unlikely candidate to travel to the South and risk her life. The presence of Northern white women in the South wasn’t appreciated by the locals; and in some of the most chilling moments of the documentary the filmmakers tape current residents of Selma who still wear their blatant racism on their sleeves: one voting table worker tells the camera that Liuzzo had no place being where she was; an older couple say they aren’t sure if they approve of black voting rights.
The story of Liuzzo is a tragedy; the pain and suffering endured by her kids is equally horrific. And though this documentary will break your heart, it’s an eye-opening walk down 1965 that Detroiters will be wiser and gladder to have taken.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Thursday, Sept. 30, at 7:30 p.m. and Oct. 2-3 at 2 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Lisa M. Collins is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.