Because news cycles turn rapidly, individuals have to remember things that institutions don't. In 1965, Viola Liuzzo, a 39-year-old mother of five from Detroit, went to Alabama to help blacks register to vote. She was shot to death in her car, and the story became a national scandal, with reporters camped at her family's doorstep. President Johnson ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to make finding her killers a top priority, and used the national outrage to push through the Voting Rights Act. The Klansmen who shot Liuzzo were quickly captured, but were just as quickly acquitted by a jury of their Alabama peers. And now Liuzzo's place in the civil-rights struggle is all but forgotten, reduced to a dot on a textbook timeline.
There are multiple reasons for Liuzzo's obscurity, ranging from the American public's short attention span to what may have been a systematic campaign of character assassination by Hoover's staff. Liuzzo's non-traditional family and indifference to organized religion also made her a tough sell as a martyr. Paolo Di Florio's documentary Home Of The Brave makes too much of Liuzzo's iconoclasm early on, in a series of context-setting montages (narrated by Stockard Channing) that deliver elementary lectures on the conservative family values and budding radicalism of the '60s. Di Florio, whose previous film was the problematic Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg character sketch Speaking In Strings, loses her grip on Liuzzo's story whenever she lapses into generalities.
But when Di Florio gets into the specifics of her subject's legacy, Home Of The Brave stands out as both relevant and moving. More than half of the film covers the lifelong efforts of Liuzzo's children to come to terms with her death. One daughter travels to Alabama and adds her mother's name to a registry of everyone who marched on Selma. One son makes pirate radio broadcasts from the heart of the Michigan militia, preaching civil liberties and compiling evidence that the FBI let his mother's killer walk because he was working for them undercover. Toward the end of Home Of The Brave, Di Florio makes direct comparisons between Southern suppression of voting rights past and present, and brings up the Patriot Act, challenging her audience to reconsider their relationship with the government. The recent flood of documentaries about current events will prove invaluable years from now, but Home Of The Brave goes back and records what many missed decades ago, and finds new connections.