October 18, 2012

Shenandoah Screening at UC Davis School of Law

On Tuesday evening, UC Davis School of Law hosted the West Coast premiere of Shenandoah, a documentary about a coal mining town with a rich immigrant heritage, which was dramatically challenged when four of the town’s white, star football players were charged in the beating death of an Mexican immigrant named Luis Ramirez. In it, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley creates a deeply felt portrait of a working class community and the American Dream on trial.

Turnley and Billy Peterson, Executive Producer and CEO of Epic Match Media, were in attendance for the showing of the film. Carlos Gonzalez Gutierrez, the Consul General of Mexico in Sacramento, was also a guest.

Executive Producer Peterson, Director Turnley, Ambassador Gonzalez, and me

Ambassador Gonzalez addresses the audience before the film.

Along with Turnley and Peterson, immigration law expert (and former ImmigrationProf blogger) Professor Leticia Saucedo participated in a fascinating discussion and analysis of the film after the showing.

The film, in my estimation, is much more than about the tragic death of Luis Ramirez, although we learn many insights about that story. The film demonstrates the nation’s need to confront and address racism in modern American social life as well as the often harsh impacts that the changing national and world economies on small-town America.

Shenandoah also reveals much about the tough times in which we live in terms of immigration. Harsh talk of “illegal aliens”, “anchor babies”, and worse create the kind of environment in which a hate crime like the killing of Luis Ramirez by a group of all-American boys can occur. As has been reported, hate crimes directed at Latinos have been at high levels for a number of years.  It does not seem coincidental that the frequently coarse debate over immigration, and the failure of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, has occurred over the same time period of high levels of hate crimes against Latinos.  The film this made me consider just how important moving forward on immigration reform was.

Shenandoah also causes one to think about whether the hyper-aggressiveness of beloved high school football in a small town contributed to the violence that resulted in a tragic death. A somewhat surprising feature of the film was the personal growth of Brian Scully, one of the perpetrators of the crime, who admitted his role in the horrible incident, later testified against other defendants, and grew personally from his experience (and moved away from high school football).

Last but not least, the U.S. Department of Justice under President Obama brought federal civil rights charges against the wrongdoers after a jury in state court found the defendants guilty of only simple assault, the least serious criminal charge. That intervention thus brought some modicum of justice to those who participated in the beating death of Luis Ramirez. The Obama administration has demonstrated more of an interest in these kinds of prosecutions than the Bush administration.

If you get a chance to see Shenandoah, I highly recommend it.