'Liberty: Mother of Exiles': Film Review

Liberty: Mother of Exiles Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of HBO
Diane von Furstenberg makes this choppy doc worth a watch.

Directing duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato recount the origin story of the iconic Statue of Liberty in this HBO doc.

From the very beginning, the Statue of Liberty has been synonymous with America’s history of welcoming people from all over the world to its shores, as well as a site of protest when America fails to live up to its ideals. And what Liberty: Mother of Exiles makes clear is that even if you think you know the whole story, there’s a lot more to it than Emma Lazarus’ famous poem.

You can hear Whoopi Goldberg, Jessica Chastain, Big Freedia and several other celebs reciting Lazarus' poem in the latest trailer for the HBO documentary. Directing duo Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato tell the origin story of the statue and reflect on the impact it has had around the world for more than 130 years. (Bailey and Barbato are most well-known for founding World of Wonder, the production shingle behind RuPaul’s Drag Race.) The film gives an in-depth history of how French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi came up with the idea of the statue, a gift to the United States from France, and his struggle to raise the necessary funds to create it. 

Fashion designer and immigrant from Belgium Diane von Furstenberg is the film’s tour guide (and also executive produces). A self-appointed “godmother” of the statue, von Furstenberg is a witty, easygoing host whose confidence and curiosity, not to mention her love of taking selfies, is a boon to the doc. As the pic opens we see her announce the launch of a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign to build a new museum on Liberty Island, where the statue stands 305 feet high in the distance. 

Strangely the doc buries the most timely plot point surrounding the statue: its role in the protests organized in response to Trump’s immigration policies. We have to wait until the last third of the film to see White House Adviser Stephen Miller’s claims that the Lazarus poem affixed to the statue didn’t mean America was pro-immigration put into proper historical context. And the film speeds through interviews with the activist Patricia Okoumou, who climbed the statue in protest of the divisive “kids in cages” policy back in 2018, as well as the anonymous activist responsible for surreptitiously hanging a “Refugees Welcome” sign on Lady Liberty the year before. The history of Bartholdi is interesting and necessary to the doc, sure, but throwing in these relevant pegs to the story near the end really doesn’t do the pic any favors.

Also, the musical score in the first half of the film sounds like a techno remix of the House of Cards theme song, and not in a good way. It’s such an ill-fitting choice that it undermines the engrossing backstory of the statue. At times the doc feels like two films that fail to cohere. The stiffer first half has a muddled tone; the second half finds an enjoyable rhythm and ditches the odd scoring in place of something less noticeable.

The very first scene in the film features two park rangers on Liberty Island, a Chinese American man and a black man who immigrated from Grenada. The latter gives a tour to a group of high-school students who attend a special New York City school for newly arrived immigrants. But this inclusion begins to feel tokenistic as the pic progresses and the rest of the time is spent mostly profiling white people. It’s an advocacy-heavy film that wants viewers to feel patriotic (and donate funds), but to accomplish this it ignores the many inconvenient ironies related to the statue’s story, including those related to race and the process of once scorned-European immigrants eventually becoming “white.”

There’s a great insider bit about one of the construction workers who bravely volunteered to scale the statue during its late 1980s restoration, even though it required being 300 feet in the air with limited scaffolding. But the selective telling makes it harder to celebrate him as a member of the union that systematically excluded people of color from their ranks. A similar hesitation is felt when the doc touches on the owners of the gift shop and the ferry that transports visitors to the island; you come away with the impression that the New Yorkers who most benefit from the tourist dollars generated by the statue are direct descendants of those 19th and 20th century European immigrants.

Miller is technically right: The Lazarus poem "The New Colossus" was not affixed to the Statue of Liberty from the beginning; it was added almost 20 years after the statue’s dedication in 1886. But what he conveniently neglected to mention when his comments caused a stir back in 2017 is that Lazarus’ poem had been instrumental in raising money to complete the statue long before then. And the timeline of the poem going up with the statue doesn’t change the fact that Lazarus intentionally wrote these verses to advocate for greater acceptance of immigrants and refugees at a time when many Russian Jews were fleeing the pogroms.

And this is where Liberty: Mother of Exiles shines brightest: in its ability to fill in these kinds of historical gaps that remind us why the statue is such an important symbol in the first place.

Director-producers: Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato

Executive producers: Diane Von Furstenberg, Sheila Nevins, Jason Blum, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller

Rated TV-14, 82 minutes

Premieres Oct. 17 (HBO)