Interview with Frank Little documentarian
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jul 17 08:38:51 MDT 2003
Toronto International Film Festival 2002: Interview with Travis
Wilkerson, director of An Injury to One
By David Walsh
4 October 2002
An Injury to One, directed Travis Wilkerson, centers on a significant
episode in American labor history, the murder of Industrial Workers of
the World (IWW) organizer Frank Little in Butte, Montana in August 1917.
The film provides the historical background to the event, the
decades-long exploitation of the region and its workers by the Anaconda
Copper Mining Company.
The company’s Butte operations provided 30 percent of the US copper
total, and 10 percent of the world’s, at a time when the need for the
metal exploded thanks to its role in electrification. In 1917, provoked
by low wages, dangerous conditions and reports of Anaconda’s war
profiteering, Butte’s copper miners, organized in the Metal Mineworkers
Union, walked off the job en masse. Socialist and left-wing tendencies
had strong support within the city’s working population.
Obviously a remarkable figure, Frank Little—born to a white father and
Cherokee mother in Oklahoma in 1879—had been a longtime activist for the
left-wing IWW. As An Injury to One explains, shortly after his arrival
in Butte, Little addressed 6,000 miners, denouncing the capitalist
system and proposing a program of worldwide revolution by the working
class. Ten days later he spoke to another meeting of 6,500, during which
he termed President Woodrow Wilson a “lying tyrant,” and called on
workers to “abolish the wage-system and establish a socialist commonwealth.”
Official Butte was outraged by Little’s activities. On August 1 a gang
of vigilantes, none of whose identities were ever learned, abducted the
IWW organizer from his hotel room, drove outside of town and, after
dragging him behind their car, hung him from a railway trestle. They
pinned a note on him that read “3’-7’-77”,” the dimensions of a grave in
Montana. No one was ever arrested or convicted for Little’s brutal murder.
Wilkerson’s film also examines the present state of Butte, a
much-decayed industrial city of some 32,000 people, blighted by the
largest body of contaminated water in the US, the Berkeley Pit. This is
the legacy of Anaconda, which abandoned the town decades ago. The
company reportedly had extracted $25 billion worth of copper by that time.
Detective story writer Dashiell Hammett presumably based his fictional
“Poisonville” in Red Harvest on Butte. Hammett, who worked as a
Pinkerton detective from 1915 to 1922, claimed in interviews in later
life that he had been offered $5,000 to take part in the murder of
Little, a claim treated by many with skepticism.
The strength of Wilkerson’s film, which suffers from occasional bouts of
self-consciousness, is its seriousness and intelligence in the
examination of a history that is almost entirely concealed by official
sources. It is an unusual and sometimes quite moving effort. We spoke in
* * *
David Walsh: Could you tell me something about your background?
Travis Wilkerson: I grew up in the West. I was born in Colorado, lived
there till I was 12 or 13, then my family moved to Butte in 1982. It was
an interesting time to move to Butte. We moved into town when everybody
was moving out of town. The mines had been slowing for years, but 1982
was really when the bottom was falling out, so it was a very depressed
time. Although it’s not really much better now.
I went to high school in Butte, which was a fascinating, weird
experience for me. As you can imagine, it’s a fairly insular town at
this point, so I was treated with a certain amount of suspicion, but
over time I felt pretty comfortable there and liked it a lot. When
you’re just a kid you probably don’t appreciate the history as much as
you should, but I’ve come to love it.
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