A Shameful Secret Returns to Haunt Arizona in “Bisbee ’17”

Written by | Entertainment, Screen

Bisbee-17 scene

Bisbee-17 courtesy Impact Partners

The town of Bisbee, Arizona is haunted. Author Colin Dickey describes it well in his book, Ghostland: “Cities that are haunted … seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other.” Though today Bisbee is a quiet, desert town, the Bisbee of 1917 was a boomtown, fed by the massive copper mine at its heart.

Back then, copper was so valuable and important to U.S. interests in World War I that a group of deputized citizens joined together to round up workers who were striking (for higher wages and safer working conditions) and put them on trains bound for somewhere in the New Mexico desert, warning them to never to return to Bisbee. The town attempted to erase the “Bisbee Deportation” from the history books almost immediately, and — thought it was grossly illegal, no persons or corporate entities were ever held accountable. Director Robert Greene documents the tragedy with a candid eye, using awkward-but-telling extended takes of interviews with locals, and a combination of documentary, Western and musical elements.

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Greene creates a record not just the town and its dark past, but also of its recent efforts to re-enact the deportation. In particular we follow a re-enactor playing one of the strikers, a young Mexican-American man, gentle, soft-spoken and gay, whose mother was deported when he was only 11 years old. But we see many stories from both sides — including those who believed the action to be so necessary that it justified their methods. The Word: Themes of immigration, unionization, environmental damage, corporate corruption and conflict regarding collective memory in Bisbee ’17 make it particularly salient to our currently divided country. Coming to: Theaters

Last modified: February 22, 2019

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