Aired Wednesday June 9th, 2010 at 8:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
Before Joe Hill faced the firing squad in 1915, his legend had reached near-mythic proportions. As a singer-songwriter and labor activist, Hill would challenge the American values of fairness and justice and would provide a rallying cry for defiant labor workers for generations to come. KUED encores its powerful 90-minute documentary, Joe Hill, on Wednesday, June 9 at 8:00 p.m.
Born into a poor working class family in Sweden, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund migrated to the U.S. in 1902. With virtually nothing in his pockets, Joel found work cleaning bar spittoons in the slums of New York City. It wasn't long before he left New York in search of better work. For the next eight years Joel would drift from job to job as an industrial worker.
During the years of drifting, Joel ran into trouble and vanished--at least in name. Years later, friends in the labor movement would say he had to disappear because of his determined advocacy of worker rights and the angry response of powerful companies. Still others maintain that Joel frequently turned to petty crime, and he had to assume a different identity to keep one step ahead of the law. In either case, Joel Emmanuel Hägglund became Joseph Hillstrom.
In 1910, working as a dock hand in Califorina, Hillstrom was exposed to the heated rhetoric of labor activists who claimed they had a new vision for the future. The group called themselves the Industrial Workers of the World and were known by the nickname the "Wobblies." Hillstrom embraced the ideology of the I.W.W. In late 1910 he wrote a letter to the I.W.W. newspaper, Industrial Worker, identifying himself as "Joe Hill."
Writer and director Ken Verdoia says, "The story of Joe Hill is the story of European immigration at its peak -- and the extraordinary challenge faced by millions of people seeking opportunity in this country. It's the story of conflict surrounding the early organization of rank-and-file workers. And it's the story of a nation wrestling with issues of justice and fairness."
In January, 1914, Hill was arrested in Salt Lake City, Utah, and charged with murder. The state claimed that Hill and another man (never identified nor found) rushed into John Morrison's grocery store and shot Morrison and his son to death. The events surrounding the trial and execution of Joe Hill resonated worldwide. President Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, the Swedish Minister, national labor organizers, and others tried to stop the execution.
Using archival photographs, written documents, dramatic re-creations, and interviews with historians, Joe Hill tells the story of an immigrant worker-turned-union-organizer caught in a power struggle with big business and judicial politics. In the film, Hill's pro-union songs are brought to life by local musicians Rex Flinner and Dan Waldis.
Viewers will come to different conclusions about Hill's guilt, according to Verdoia. "Early on, I decided that Hill's guilt or innocence was not the central reason for undertaking this documentary. For me the importance of the story is to understand the process that was at work...the political and social climate that contributed to the trial and the very notion of 'justice,'" he says.
"Joe Hill is an enigma," says co-producer Nancy Green. "Some people said he had the soul of a poet and that he could never commit murder, while others claimed he had a dark side. Even his closest friends said he was a mystery."
For more information on Joe Hill visit the website at www.kued.org/productions/joehill
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