Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Shenandoah (Documentary) Review

Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.

When you think of "Shenandoah," you probably think of that valley in Virginia. Or anything really, besides the sleepy, deteriorating town nestled in the forested, formerly coal-rich hills of Pennsylvania.

What happened that made this town worthy of being documented in a, uh, documentary? A hate crime occurred there, and as you know, those attract filmmakers much like the IRS and late tax payments. Members of the town's lauded football team, the Shenandoah Blue Devils, killed a man of Latino descent late one summer night in a drunken fit of gory blood-lust that ended with their target convulsing on the pavement, choking on his own fluids.

The documentary itself covered the two court cases, the reaction to the crime in the town, and the individual story of one of the boys involved in the assault.

It was interesting seeing how people in this small, isolated town reacted to the crime. Many formed small, confederate-style brigades screaming such educated phrases as "this is America!" and "we don't want Mexicans," etc. As somebody with a metric ton of family living in Shenandoah, I was more than a little disappointed at this kind of jingoistic 19th century reaction to immigration. Sure, the man who was killed was an illegal who spoke little English, but that doesn't entitle you to lapse into the kind of uneducated hatred that makes you look like you were pulled out of Huckleberry Finn.

Back to what I said earlier, I'm half Italian, and that side of me nearly all originated in Shenandoah, which is partly why I watched the documentary in the first place. Shenandoah was originally an immigrant town centered around coal mining, which made it more than a bit ironic that all this hatred towards Latinos existed at all. Then again, I'd be remiss to suggest that I understand the kinds of illogical frozen-in-time microcosms that persist within places like this.

One of the reasons this crime got the attention it did is because the Shenandoah police tried to cover it up, in a futile attempt to protect the football stars who committed the crime. It was like high school, except with higher, deadlier stakes. This time, instead of the Principal letting a star quarterback get away with failing a class, the police were allowing him to get away with murder. To make a long story short, the FBI got involved, which led to both the police and the assailants being charged with crimes.

Overall, Shenandoah was a surprising film that expertly captured the atmosphere of a small, dying, turn of the century immigrant town, and the confused racial tension that tore it apart from within. It uncovered the illogical thought processes coloring the decisions of a police force and population that, frustratingly, cared more about the success of their football team than for the life of a Latino immigrant. It was a story of small town minds attempting to grasp complex 21st century issues, and, for the most part, failing miserably. In short, the reactions of these people will seem ludicrous to most of you, especially if you have a college education. Perhaps there is a lesson there. Despite how far we think we've come, there's always one more small town, no, one more backwards thinking person out there that we have to pull into modernity.

Based on this documentary, there's much work to be done.

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