Our film is about one of the most important libel lawsuits in American history, Sapiro v. Ford. This case pitted the richest and most famous man in America, Henry Ford, against a scrappy young lawyer, Aaron Sapiro, who was making a name for himself organizing farmers into cooperative associations during the early 1920s. Ford saw Sapiro as the vanguard of an international Jewish conspiracy bent on taking over America. Ford used his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, to conduct a smear campaign against him. After failing to convince Ford to retract his wild allegations, Sapiro sued him in Federal Court for libel. This set in motion a two year-long roller coaster ride of battles and skirmishes in the courts and in the press until Ford finally publicly apologized in 1927.
The public and the press saw this as more than an individual libel suit brought by Sapiro against Ford. To them it became a case about hate-speech against all Jews.
This film will chronicle the characters, the actions, the issues and the themes of the trial that are embedded in the twisted history of American race relations, ethnicity and class. The trial occurred against the backdrop of Ford’s industrial ascendance that interacted explosively with U.S. involvement in the First World War. We’ll also uncover for the first time who cooperated with Ford to produce the surprising outcome of the trial and why it happened the way it did. In short, this film is about the people who took up the struggles of immigrants, impoverished farmers and outsiders against the wealthiest and most powerful man in America.
We still encounter enormous difficulty confronting racist and hateful speech as a society, perhaps because we recognize it as a symptom of a deeper struggle to define who we are as Americans. Our film will probe those questions.
The film will examine what Ford hoped to achieve by popularizing anti-Semitism. Certainly some Americans found Ford’s views repugnant, but many agreed with him. By publishing the newspaper and speaking publicly about his beliefs about Jews, Ford tapped into the strong strain of American nativism and xenophobia that was driving national policy on civil rights, citizenship, and immigration.
Lawsuits are the common coin of conflict in U.S. history. Once in a while, an individual trial commands special attention because of the issues it raises, and because those issues speak to concerns that resonate over time, concerns that go directly to the heart of how Americans perceive and understand themselves. Sapiro v. Ford is one of these cases. The defendant, of course, is an iconic figure in American history. At stake was nothing less than the fundamental equality of an entire group of citizens. Sapiro had put forward a distinct vision for American social and economic development that put him on a collision course with destiny in the battle against Ford’s war of words on Jews.