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New Film on Statue Controversies Is a Monumental Achievement

Stonebreakers is effective not only because it packs a powerful punch, but because it elevates the nuances of the issue.

Eleanor J. Bader May 26, 2023

Stonebreakers, an award-winning 2022 film by Valerio Ciriaci, tells the story of the contentious domestic debate over statues and monuments honoring Confederate leaders, imperialist explorers, and those who have promoted and celebrated the extermination of Native Americans. 

The even-handed documentary takes viewers to numerous political hotspots throughout the United States — Manhattan and Syracuse in New York; New Haven and Waterbury in Connecticut; Mount Rushmore, the Pine Ridge Reservation and Rapid City in South Dakota; Richmond and the North Bend Plantation in Virginia; Minneapolis; Philadelphia and Washington, DC. 

Does the lauding of particular people — Christopher Columbus, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or George Washington, for example — teach us to revere people who should instead be reviled?

Ciriaci explores the passionate debate between two poles: Those who maintain that the statues represent America’s heritage and those who believe that they celebrate the worst impulses in our culture. For the latter group, the monuments are little more than a paean to racism, sexism and genocide that should be removed.

The beautifully-filmed drama poses several pressing questions: Do representative sculptures always have political meaning, or can they simply exist as works of art? Does the lauding of particular figures — Christopher Columbus, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee or George Washington, for example — teach us to revere people who should instead be reviled?

They’re good questions, deftly posed. 

Over the course of 70 minutes, a variety of voices emerge. What’s more, the film presents the issue as one with deep historical roots, and Ciriaci stresses that this is not the first time a resolve to remove works deemed offensive has galvanized the American people. In fact, the film reports that a statue of Britain’s King George, on display in New York City’s Bowling Green, was toppled in July 1776 after word that the Second Continental Congress had approved the Declaration of Independence. According to legend, the statue was then transported to Connecticut, where it was melted into 40,000 bullets for use by the Continental Army.

Stonebreakers/ Awen Films
Stonebreakers/ Awen Films
Stonebreakers/ Awen Films
During the George Floyd Uprising of 2020, citizens of Richmond, VA emblazed a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee with BLM slogans. The statue still stands today. Awen Films

Like these predecessors, Stonebreakers reports that today’s pro-removal activists want repudiation of artifacts they call “vile atrocities.” In their stead, they are demanding memorials to victims of Native American genocide, police brutality, enslavement, rape and land theft.

Although few such displays have come to fruition, the contemporary demand for removals has already had an impact. Indeed, CNN contends that 73 monuments were removed in 2021, a year after a demand was raised by Black Lives Matter activists to topple them. 

Not surprisingly, this has engendered both progressive glee and right-wing wrath.

Stonebreakers explores all of this and zeroes in on numerous campaigns, including those leveled at statues of Columbus. A diverse group of Italian Americans are interviewed; some champion the explorer while others decry his valorization. Folklorist Joseph Sciorra, for one, concedes that while some working-class Italians donated hard-earned dollars so that statues of Columbus could be erected throughout the country, they were mostly constructed at the behest of business elites such as Carlo Barsotti and Vincenzo Polidori — founders of the Il Progresso Italo-Americano newspaper in 1872 — in order to fabricate a more palatable Italian American political identity. What’s more, he notes that “there are no markers, no streets named” for the many Italian American labor leaders of the 20th century, something he hopes his community will rectify. 

All told, Stonebreakers is effective not only because it packs a powerful punch, but because it elevates the nuances of the issues at hand, steering clear of glib, over-simplified rhetoric or solutions. While it includes footage of Donald J. Trump revving up his pro-monument base and denouncing removal proponents, the film features diverse activists who are demanding a reckoning with history and its representations. 

Monument removal is clearly an issue with high stakes. That said, the jury remains out on whether the movement will succeed in pushing society to develop a more inclusive definition of heroism or will continue to rely on outdated and exclusionary models.      

Stonebreakers
Directed by Valerio Ciriaci
Awen Films; 2022; 70 minutes.
Plays at Brooklyn Film Festival on June 3

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