Stealing Butte


A deft, ambitious exercise in old-school socialist agitprop crafted with the precise multimedia flair of a corporate PowerPoint presentation, Travis Wilkerson’s An Injury to One retells the gritty class struggles of the previous century through smoothly contemporary digital means. It chronicles the saga of environmentally devastated Butte, Montana, by focusing on the murder of Frank Little, spitfire World War I-era Wobbly organizer. Via Wilkerson’s parade of archival data—photos, songs, landscapes, quotations, text, and charts—the Little affair grows into a metaphor for the greater course of American and global capitalism.

Injury‘s back-and-forth motions track Butte from a tiny gold-mining outpost to a copper-mine boomtown (thanks to the advent of the electricity age) soon monopolized by the Anaconda Mining Company, which grew fat from WWI profiteering as thousands of workers perished in unsafe mines. In 1917, the already notorious Little arrived to press Butte’s masses into action. Referred to simply as “the agitator” by corporate accounts, Little concluded his career at the wrong end of a noose, strung up by unprosecuted anti-union goons. Anaconda continued as a closed shop; when the company left Butte in the 1980s, it had made billions. Its legacy is a former mining pit, now a massive toxic lake.

Wilkerson could not have found a more convenient case study against the excesses of capitalism, with Manichaean protagonists worthy of Chomsky and pro wrestling: The muscular Anaconda crushes the Little guy. Historical tangents and coincidences provide illustrative excursions. Pinkerton detective Dashiell Hammett, who may have been involved in the murder, later transformed his Butte sojourn into the 1929 proto-noir crime novel Red Harvest, renaming the town “Poisonville.” In a commie-baiting roundup of Butte unionists, one of the detained miners was named Joseph McCarthy. Little is portrayed as not simply a rabble-rouser but a breed of visionary artist. His speeches, Wilkerson argues, attempted “to describe an image of a different kind of world.”

A slow-twang soundtrack by Low, Will Oldham, Jim O’Rourke, and others dovetails with the director’s own voice as narrator. Wilkerson’s patter flows in rich, clear, quick tones, occasionally primed into restrained punctuations of righteous anger. The overall emotional palette—melancholy evocations arranged on the cold platter of reality—is of a generational piece with similarly political works by Jem Cohen, while the film’s post-cinematic structure owes a debt to recent experimental video essays: the show-and-tell aesthetics of artists like Steve Reinke, Matt McCormick, or Elisabeth Subrin. What the pining sense of loss and fallen-ness says about contemporary attitudes toward social change poses a greater question in itself.

While Injury draws parallels between then and now (corporate and government collusion in war, resulting in free-floating McCarthyism), it’s the gap between past and present political realities that swells the void of somber sadness. Today, global markets make local action less effective. The actual American working class largely resides in China, Mexico, India, and elsewhere. The sordid histories of post-WWI socialist states need no mention. In a sense, Injury pines for a simplified version of the past it critiques: an unambiguous time, with evil villains and heroic martyrs, before the events of the 20th century shattered the retroactively innocent ideals of socialist revolution.

Injury is smartly paired at Anthology (where it screens as part of the First Run/ Icarus retro) with Mario Marrett and Chris Marker’s 1967 short À Bientôt J’Espère, newly subtitled in English. An early work from the leftist SLON co-op, À Bientôt documents an unsuccessful 1967 strike by French textile workers. The workers’ new focus on demanding not simply better wages, but a better way of life, is portrayed as a prelude to the cultural revolutions of May 1968. Screened now, it too plays like leftist nostalgia for lost tomorrows: a longing for an image of the world that never had the chance to fail.