THE LETTER: AN AMERICAN TOWN AND THE 'SOMALI INVASION'NR
The Letter: An American Town and the "Somali Invasion" demonstrates conclusively that racism still exists at many levels in American society. This brief but essential expose could be used in classrooms and should be seen way beyond them.
Documentarian Ziad H. Hamzeh traces the events that occur in October 2002, when Lewiston, Maine Mayor Larry Raymond sends an open letter to 1,000-plus newly arrived Somali refugees, warning them to tell their friends and relatives not to immigrate to the financially strapped city. The immediate outcry of racism by Somali representatives and liberal leaders is countered by conservative forces, including white-supremacist groups across the country who see the conflict as an opportunity to rally. A showdown occurs between the anti-immigrant demonstrators and the more tolerant Lewiston citizens, and the results are not satisfying for either side.
Little seems to have changed since Anne Bohlen and Kevin Rafferty's Blood in the Face, the superb 1991 documentary about neo-Nazi and white-supremacist group activities across the U.S. The Letter differs, however, by focusing on a single event and its consequences. Of course, director Hamzeh is wise enough to contextualize the literal black-and-white battle. He includes the earlier backstory of America's ill-fated military involvement in Somalia's civil war (in 1993) as well as the history behind Lewiston's socioeconomic malaise.
Using archival news footage (circa 2002-03) and interviews with those fighting each other, Hamzeh captures the intensity of the moment without being exploitative (e.g., there are snipers on rooftops during the filming). Hamzeh (and co-editor Franco Sacchi) are particularly adept at recreating the build-up of unease by crosscutting the oppositional comments on both sides. At times, though, The Letter's guerrilla-filmmaking style backfires, with a few too many crosscut sequences, a roughness to some of the "talking head" interviews, and an over-reliance on children for emotional impact.
But overall, here is a true story with an "inciting incident" that resonates with significance about race, culture, community, and the world itself. A must-see.