by Aaron West
Today’s United States of America is more divided than ever on many issues – the Iraq war, gay marriage, abortion, the death penalty, and the church’s involvement within government affairs. On matters of race, however, we are nearly universally unified against discrimination and improper treatment towards minorities. That’s not saying that racism doesn’t exist, or that we don’t have a guilty past, but we’ve come a long way from Jim Crow laws, race riots, and, of course, slavery. Yet despite our past, or maybe because of it, we are still susceptible to hate. THE LETTER demonstrates that the worst still can happen here. It did, despite our best intentions in welcoming 1,000 Somalian refugees to Lewiston, Maine.The movie begins by recalling American involvement in Somalia, specifically in regards to the soldier who had been killed in the infamous downing of the Black Hawk helicopter. That soldier had lived in a neighboring town, still fresh in the memory of the local citizens, thanks in part to the successful book and movie, Black Hawk Down. For many, the image of the Somalian is a negative one, but the town’s hospitable side takes over and in the beginning, they welcome the newcomers with open arms. But over time, things change. Jealousy takes over, as the Somalians are given so much governmental support that their standard of living is noticeably higher than many residents. Over time, many locals also perceive the Somalians as sucking up the economy. From there, the stereotype runs rampant, and a significant opposition develops toward their cohabitants.
"A harrowing example of racial division in the U.S."
The division finally materializes, or at least is authenticated, when the Mayor writes an open letter to the Somalian refugees, which is published in the local newspaper. The message – you guys are sucking us dry; we don’t like you; please don’t invite your friends. With that message in print, the bigotry is substantiated and the two camps begin taking action. What follows is an absolute racial war, complete with white supremacist hate groups and liberal activists. Tensions continue to rise until the fateful day where both camps decide to hold a rally, which many are afraid, will turn to violence.
With an exhilarating subject such as this, the one thing that stands out is editing. Like in other documentaries with a lot of natural tension, such as Bus 174 and One Day in September, the editors harness that suspense and show that non-fiction can be just as gripping, if not more so, than a fictional thriller. It’s even more impressive that they are able to tell such a fascinating story, yet still approach the story from all sides and all angles. The natural events, as they unfold, do the rest to keep us near the edge of our seat, wondering what will happen next.While it would be easy to take the moral high ground, The Letter does not waste its time preaching about the evils of racism. We’ve heard it all before, and our country has matured in handling its diversity. Yet, despite our politically correct, modern enlightened state, this documentary shows that the potential for divisive bigotry still exists in America, and will show its fangs with little warning. There are no definitive answers to be found here, because unfortunately nobody really has any. If anything, this film serves as a reminder of how much our discriminatory past still haunts us to this day, despite our relatively newfound sensitivity towards civil rights issues.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=11582&reviewer=403
originally posted: 08/17/05 10:45:45