The Letter

  • 2005
  • Movie
  • NR
  • Documentary

A frustrating lack of details compromise this much-needed look at how the promise of American diversity failed a community of Somali refugees in a large Maine town. Until the arrival of the Somalis in the mid-90s — escapees from the civil unrest that had claimed the lives of many of their family members — Lewiston, Maine, was a overwhelmingly white...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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A frustrating lack of details compromise this much-needed look at how the promise of American diversity failed a community of Somali refugees in a large Maine town. Until the arrival of the Somalis in the mid-90s — escapees from the civil unrest that had claimed the lives of many of their family members — Lewiston, Maine, was a overwhelmingly white factory town whose fortunes were tied to those of the now-closed Bates textile mill. Worried about jobs, housing and their futures, the largely Franco-American residents of Lewiston extended an uneasy welcome to the newcomers. The images of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by an angry Somali mob in the wake of the Black Hawk Down debacle were still fresh in many minds; after 9/11, the fact that Lewiston's newest arrivals were Muslims didn't help. But it wasn't until Lewiston's mayor, Larry Raymond, published an open letter in the local paper asking Lewiston's growing Somali community to tell their friends and relatives to keep away that matters finally reached a crisis point. Despite the fact that many were community-minded professionals with college degrees, Mayor Raymond claimed they were nothing but a drain on an already beleaguered town. In Raymond's words, they had "maxed-out" the community's resources. As one attorney interviewed here puts it, the effect of the letter was like "lancing a boil": All the long-festering resentment finally broke the surface, and the town became the site of an angry, and often openly racist dispute over diversity and tolerance. The subject is in many ways similar to that of the recent documentary FARMINGVILLE (2004), which looks at how an unexpected influx of undocumented Mexican workers turned a small Long Island town into a flash-point for a national debate on immigration. The similarities, however, only point up this film's shortcomings. Filmmaker Ziad H. Hamzeh might have spent a bit more time explaining just how a town as remote as Lewiston became the destination for so many African refugees (how many, exactly, is never made clear), and he relies on a montage of first-person testimony rather than facts and figures to describe criminal attacks that took place in the wake of the mayor's letter. We're also left to guess at the realities of Lewiston's rate of unemployment and the housing shortage so many claim the Somali presence is exacerbating. Instead of a coherent voice expressing the legitimate concerns of Lewiston's disenfranchised whites, too much screen-time is devoted to the inflammatory comments of crackpots such as "Brother" David Stearns, one of the card-carrying white supremacists who see Lewiston as part of a larger crusade, and whose comments add nothing to a coherent dialogue other than ugly racial slurs.

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  • Released: 2005
  • Rating: NR
  • Review: A frustrating lack of details compromise this much-needed look at how the promise of American diversity failed a community of Somali refugees in a large Maine town. Until the arrival of the Somalis in the mid-90s — escapees from the civil unrest that… (more)

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