To date, most of director Robert Greene's films have been self-reflexive documentaries about the creation of performances. Fake It So Real (2011) looked at a group of amateur wrestlers in North Carolina as they worked on a WWE-style stage show; Actress (2014) profiled stage and TV performer Brandy Burre; and Kate Plays Christine (2016) followed actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she learned about the late TV news anchor Christine Chubbuck in order to play her in an imaginary film. Greene's latest, Bisbee '17, also concerns performance, surveying various townspeople in the title Arizona community as they prepare to reenact the Bisbee Deportation of 1917, a horrific historical episode in which roughly 2,000 deputized men rounded up almost 1,200 striking copper miners, loaded them onto freight trains, and deposited them in the New Mexico desert, leaving them to die. Yet the film is about way more than the reenactment—it's about the ways that people create and use history and how America's past interacts with its present. It feels like the grand statement that Greene has been building up to this whole decade, bringing together his various thematic interests (not just performance, but also self-delusion, education, and the quirks of regional American life) to symphonic effect.
Divided into six chapters, Bisbee '17 intertwines events leading up to the reenactment with profiles of the people involved in it and lessons about the deportation itself. The movie doesn't build to a sense a horror; Greene is upfront about the ugliness of Bisbee's history. He opens on a note of dread, then deepens his community portrait so that viewers can get past their initial shock. The film begins with onscreen text describing the deportation in blunt terms and noting Bisbee's history of xenophobia (many of the town's copper miners were immigrants, Greene informs us, and they faced widespread discrimination before they were deported). Within the next ten minutes, Greene profiles Sue Ray, a Bisbee resident whose grandfather, deputized by sheriff Harry Wheeler, arrested his own brother for deportation. A local historian, interviewed shortly after this episode, ruminates on the "necessity" of violence in "taming" the desert and its indigenous population so that whites could settle in the American southwest. His statement anticipates the film's revelation that Wheeler invoked a bogus "law of necessity" to justify the deportation.
The film's introduction also includes a quote from author Colin Dickey: "Cities that are haunted . . . seem to straddle past and present as though two versions of the same city are overlaid on top of each other." As Bisbee '17 proceeds, that statement comes to seem literal. Greene visits the nearby city of Tombstone and documents a reenactment of the gunfight at the OK Corral, suggesting that this entire region of Arizona is obsessed with events of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Back in Bisbee, Greene profiles employees of a local hotel and the city courthouse; both claim to have encountered ghosts in their places of employment. The director's style is appropriately ghostly. Greene often employs the Steadicam, whose eerily smooth movement has long been used to evoke the supernatural, during scenes where subjects portray historical figures, and Keegan DeWitt's chilling score conveys a sense of eeriness throughout. One gets the impression that the people of Bisbee have been trying to work through the legacy of the deportation—as well as the knowledge that their community was capable of such monumental cruelty—long before Greene arrived.
Some of the people Greene meets seem incapable of facing up to that cruelty, and their callousness can be downright disturbing. Ray's sons Steven and Mel claim to be neutral with regards to the deportation, even though their great-granduncle was among the deported. James West, a former employee of the private prison industry who plays one of Sheriff Wheeler's deputies in the reenactment, likens the deportation to his own efforts to "keep people safe." (Like Sue Ray, he baselessly assumes that the striking miners, many of whom had been radicalized by representatives of the IWW, posed a violent threat to the rest of the town.) The ugliest sentiments come from Richard "Dick" Graeme, a retired senior vice president of Lumina Copper Corp., who acknowledges that the deportation was illegal but believes that it was the right thing to do. Graeme agrees to play Phelps Dodge Corporation president Walter Douglas, who likely originated the idea of deporting the strikers, and the apparent pride he brings to the role may be the most frightening part of the film.
The subject granted the most screen time in Bisbee '17 is a young Mexican-American man named Fernando Serrano who's lived in the town since childhood and now works as a cook. Greene notes early on Serrano's personal investment in the historical reenactment; after reading a text stating that nearly 90 percent of the deportees were immigrants, Serrano shares that his mother was deported when he was just seven years old. Serrano also admits when he's first presented onscreen that he'd never heard about the deportation until Greene came along, but he seems to grow more interested in the event the more he learns about it. Playing one of the striking miners, Serrano gives the best performance of all the reenactors—there's a definite passion to his line readings and a poignantly understated dignity to his comportment. (He has a good singing voice too, as evidenced by his performances of some classic IWW songs.) He's an ideal audience identification figure, as he overcomes his ignorance of history to become actively involved in historical recovery.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is that Greene never overtly addresses America's current political climate, which is as divided and angry as Bisbee's was 100 years ago. Yet the zeitgeist of the Trump-era U.S. hangs unmistakably over Bisbee '17—one might say that the movie is haunted by the present as well as the past. Amid all the disturbing truths and invocations of hatred, Greene still manages to find a silver lining to his historical project. Near the end of the film, one of the players likens the reenactment to a really big group therapy session, and though he seems to be joking, the man does have a point. After all, a country's history is one thing that all its citizens share, regardless of each one's political views. Greene suggests that confronting history collectively may be a population's first step in working together to move forward. This conclusion dovetails with the director's observation (sometimes frightening, sometimes stirring) that we are always acting out history, whether we realize it or not. v