Art Works: Books and Movies That Tell the Story of US

Contributed by Lisa Bergson and Liza Watson.

We’re adding a new topic to our ILNH newsletter to share some of the books or movies that have struck us as particularly relevant to understanding where we are, how we got here and where we’re going with our country. Kicking off the first month, Elizabeth ‘Liza’ Watson and Lisa Bergson offer their perspectives and synopses of works that have made an impression on them. Side note: Just Mercy, the movie reviewed by Lisa, will be playing at the County Theater on Friday, January 10. 

  • Book Review: “The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law that Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians and Other European Immigrants Out of America.”Liza Watson

-Swarms of aliens, with loathsome diseases of the flesh.  A real emergency, fleets of ships with immigrants hanging over their edges, passengers fed from troughs like swine.-

Sounds like language that could be used in 2019, yes?  It comes from the first half of the 20th century, when the anti-immigration movement gained so much influence that Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, legislation establishing severe quotas on the entry of “non-Nordic” migrants.

-Columbus, from his portraits and from his busts, authentic or not, was clearly of Nordic ancestry.-

People of Italian descent might find this statement about Columbus to be utterly ridiculous, but such was the desire to define race according to geography, that bizarre statements like the one above gained traction.

The author traces anti-immigration fervor back to bastardization of Darwin’s ideas about species adaptation. It works like this: if there are ideal humans that have arisen within good societies, then those are the people who should be Americans, and who should reproduce.  The American population shouldn’t be sullied by bad people. Indeed, such appallingly poor research was conducted to examine societal tendencies that one study showed Romanians were 41% more likely than the average American to be criminal. Italians were 57% more likely to be insane. And Serbians were six times more likely to be inadequate (whatever that means!)

There were counter-voices to the nonsense. In particular, Franz Boas, the father of modern American Anthropology spoke out publicly, testified in Congress and critiqued books. He wasn’t heard. The list of influential people who supported racist limits is large and chilling:  Henry Cabot Lodge, Calvin Coolidge, Maxwell Perkins (F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor), Theodore and Eleanor Roosevelt.  

Eventually, during WWII, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed, and in the 50’s other laws opened doors for those fleeing Soviet controlled countries. Finally, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act into law. It abolished quotas and established a nationality-blind system for immigration.

I always thought my views about immigration were just normal.  It turns out I’ve been a fool. The revolting language and action coming from Washington DC since 2017 resonates with historical anti-immigration racist bias.

I recommend this book.  It’s a good read, with many stories and insights.  You’ll be aghast, and illuminated. It shook my eyes open.

In the end, I take heart from the author’s ironic comment, “Exactly what the anti-immigration movement feared came true: a few generations of adaptation, cross-fertilization, and intermarriage had taken their country away from them. They even lost their claim to the term ‘native American’.“

  • Movie Review: “Just Mercy” – Lisa Bergson

No wonder his Death Row pro bono clients at Alabama’s Holman Prison don’t trust him at first. Portrayed by Michael B. Jordan in the riveting movie, “Just Mercy”, the dedicated, courageous, and highly analytical Harvard Law School graduate, Bryan Stevenson, is almost too good to be true.  But, back in the 1980s, when Stevenson took on the brutally racist Alabaman criminal injustice system, you could sure use some super-hero powers.   

Stevenson’s cool, consistently principled persona is a great foil for the engaging characters he encounters, men unjustly sentenced to death row only because the color of their skin made it easy and convenient to do so.  “I knew he was guilty the minute I saw his mug shot,” the District Attorney said of one inmate wrongly convicted of double homicide. 

Death Row inmates could smell the stench of burnt skin when one of their fellows was taken to the “kill room”, and the portrayal of another inmate, Herbert’s execution led this writer to cover her eyes.  My husband reported that the film spares us what Stevenson gravely witnessed at his doomed client’s request. Just before his execution, Herbert confided, “It’s been so strange, Bryan. More people have asked me what they can do to help in the last fourteen hours of my life than ever asked me in the years when I was coming up.”  

Recruited to help this severely disturbed inmate just weeks before his scheduled death, Stevenson was tormented by the fact that the court never heard of Herbert’s gruesome experiences in Vietnam, his extreme PTSD, nor the abuse he suffered as a motherless child. More, Bryan’s experience of Herbert’s tragic end heightened his determination to do all he could to protect his clients from the same unjust fate. 

The arc of the story homes in on Walter McMillian (known as Johnny D), majestically portrayed by Jamie Foxx, when he is stopped by a police roadblock and falsely charged with the murder of a lovely white teenaged girl.  It later follows Stevenson and his small, barely funded team through their dogged investigation and daring interventions, as they face surprising, almost inconceivable turnabouts in their campaign to spare Johnny from the same doom as Herbert.  

Based on Stevenson’s award-winning, work of non-fiction, Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption, this movie offers a powerful and compelling portrayal of the early days of his Equal Justice Initiative, which exonerated dozens of inmates, some after many years on Death Row for crimes they did not commit.  While the time lost and the damage done will never be recovered, Johnny D, at his lowest point tells Stevenson, “If I go to the chair, I’ll be smiling because you gave me back my truth. Me and my family know my truth.” 

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Ed: Want to share a book or movie that’s helped you understand more about our country’s past, present and future? Send an email to The Civil Rights Action Group also regularly has book club meetings – check out what they’re reading by contacting

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