Bisbee '17 Grapples with the Ugly Now and Then

Bisbee '17 (2018)
Directed by Robert Greene
Impact Partners Film, 112 minutes, PG-13.

Fernando Serrano
When a vigilante band expels 1,300 strikers from a company town, what's the story? Is it the company? The loyalists? The strikers? Is it about how the past informs the present? Or is it some other factor such as ethnicity, immigration status, or social justice?  

In 1880, the Phelps Dodge conglomerate found gold, silver, and loads of copper in a remote part of Arizona. The town of Bisbee sprung forth to straddle the pits Phelps Dodge opened. It became a classic one-industry town and remained so until 1975, when the last mine closed. Today Bisbee has about 5,600 citizens; once it had nearly 10,000. If it has a future, it will come from cafés, tourism, and the arts. Many locals are either suspicious of or openly oppose the newcomers, which is to say that part of town is Trump territory and the other half progressive. And so history repeats itself.

Bisbee '17 is a double entendre title from director Robert Greene. His film wrapped in 2017as he was shooting scenes in which locals speculated about the town's future minus Phelps Dodge. It was also when President Trump announced his no-exceptions expulsion policy toward illegal aliens. But the film's hook is what happened in Bisbee in 1917.

In brief, the radical (in rhetoric) Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) led a miners' strike. It wasn't difficult to convince hard rock miners that they toiled long hours for little pay under some of the dirtiest and most dangerous conditions imaginable. Some of the strikers were immigrants, many had grown up in Bisbee, and some of their sympathizers owned local businesses. Phelps Dodge's response was, shall we say, unique. On July 12, 1917, a hastily deputized force under a company stooge, Sheriff Harry C. Wheeler, staged an early morning raid that rounded up strikers and their allies. They were herded into bullpens, loaded into boxcars, railroaded 200 miles distant to a New Mexico dessert near the Mexican border, and dumped out with neither food nor water. It is a miracle that just two people died: a deputy making an arrest and the man he tried to put into custody. The Bisbee Deportation is one of those many buried tales from the labor wars. We don't read about it in history books because it doesn't mesh well with American freedom narratives to discuss miscarriages of justice at the hands of legal officials. The irony is that those legal officials sanctioned grossly illegal acts such as kidnapping, violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments, and suspension of habeas corpus.

How to present all of this? Greene opts for a complex, but only partially successful mix of documentary, dramatization, and historical reenactment. His is an interesting approach, but when you trifurcate a narrative, some things will fall by the wayside. I opened with a set of questions to raise the essential issue of focus. Greene does some things very well. His opening shot is quite clever. A man with a walky-talky stands in front of the local high school directing traffic so it won't interfere with the film crew. Except there isn't any traffic! Bisbee 2017 isn't exactly a dead town, but it's coughing up blood. When a one-industry town becomes a no-industry town, a substantial part of the population will move on, especially if the town is in a place where few would choose to live except to collect a paycheck. Sure, some folks have roots there and call it home but even they use terms like "quiet" to describe Bisbee. They are, of course, the same ones who are nervous about those moving into town to take advantage of cheap rents and roll the die that maybe they'll catch a renaissance wave. Plus who loves cheap rent more than the metaphorical starving artist?

Newcomers also have a habit of digging up skeletons. Is it a good idea or a bad one to commemorate an infamous event? And old labor song is titled "Which Side Are You On?" In Bisbee that pretty much means you miss the Phelps Dodge Corporation, or you think they were robber barons that only cared about what they could extract from the earth and those who shifted it. To tell that tale, Greene finds lessons in the Bisbee Deportation. He could have opted for a searing exposé-style documentary heavy on historical photos and artifacts. Alternatively, he could have done a costumed dramatization. He does both–sort of. The present/past/present structure of Greene's film is perhaps too meta for its own good. We learn about the Deportation, but we also see footage of a locals grappling with it. There are also scenes of costumed actors portraying figures from 1917, but they go in and out of character and are interviewed about both the Deportation and their feelings about the character they play and those with whom they interact. Got that? Bisbee '17 too often comes across as a good-natured pageant about distant events.

That is, when it's not force-fit commentary on today's immigration debates. Greene is correct to see parallels between 1917 and Trump's ship-'em-back-to-Mexico mentality, but he undercuts the historical record. The number one issue in Bisbee during 1917 was the IWW, not immigration. To be sure, America was on the cusp of immigration restriction in 1917 and often equated radicals and the foreign-born, but Phelps Dodge mainly cared about its right to do whatever the hell it pleased and the IWW stood in its path.

Greene's film is bold but uneven. He earns kudos, though, for unearthing willowy Mexican-American actor Fernando Serrano. He does not look like a miner and one's first impression is disbelief, but Serrano commands a range that takes us beyond the surface. Hats off to Greene also for making a film that violates the usual documentary conventions. He doesn't necessarily do justice to history, but his film has enough moments of innovation and insight to hold our interest.

Bisbee '17 is playing in small art cinemas, but it's also available for streaming.

Rob Weir

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