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By Voice Film Critics
By Alan Scherstuhl
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In 1931, nine black men, who ranged in age from 13 to 19, were riding a freight train filled with hobos and people looking for work. As they entered Alabama, the teenagers got into a fight with some white men riding in the same car. No sooner had they been taken off the train by an armed posse than two white women emerged from a boxcar and accused them of gang rape. A crowd gathered, ready for a lynching, but instead the nine men were taken to a prison in the small town of Scottsboro. Within 12 days, they were placed on trial, quickly convicted, and sentenced to death.
Like countless others falsely accused and wrongly convicted, they might have vanished from history, but their cause was taken up by the International Labor Defense, the legal arm of the Communist Party. Committed to organizing blacks in the Depression-devastated South, the CP saw the "legal lynching" of the Scottsboro boys as a rallying point. The case became an international cause célèbre and attracted the attention of a flamboyant New York criminal lawyer, Samuel Leibowitz, who, during the numerous lower-court cases and appeals, was as demonized as his clients. A former Communist activist makes the point in the documentary that Leibowitz was as provincial as most New Yorkers. He didn't anticipate the hatred he would face in the South as an outsider and a Jew to boot.
Written and directed by Guy Ritchie
A Screen Gems release
Opens January 19
In decisions that later would prove crucial to the civil rights movement, the Supreme Court overturned the Alabama courts' decisions not once but twice. The high court's rulings were precedent-setting in terms of due process and equal protection, but it was not until after the third conviction, in 1936, that the Scottsboro Legal Defense Committee struck a deal for a plea bargain: The charges against four of the defendants were dropped while the other five received long prison sentences. In 1943, the state of Alabama began paroling the five imprisoned Scottsboro boys one by one. The last to go free was Hayward Patterson, who had been most vilified during the trials and deemed by the parole board as "sullen, vicious, and incorrigible." He escaped from a chain gang in 1948.
Of his prison experience, Patterson later wrote: "I laid in the top bunk, in a way still feeling I was on a moving freight. Nothing was standing still. I was busy living from minute to minute. Everything was rumbling. I dreamed bad dreams with freight trains, guards' faces, and courtrooms mixed up with the look of the sky at night."
The quote, which we hear as a voice-over toward the end of Scottsboro, provides the filmmakers with expressive motifs: old black-and-white footage of railroad tracks seen from the front of a moving train; a color shot of a train's headlights, as bright as the moon, moving straight toward the camera; the xylophone ostinato in Edward Bilous's mournful score, reminiscent of Philip Glass's score for The Thin Blue Line.
Goodman and Anker adroitly shape a cohesive drama out of a complicated history, so much so that we might not realize until we hear Patterson's words how the film has failed until this point to bring the Scottsboro boys themselves to life. In terms of the film as a whole, Patterson's singularly poetic passage is a case of too little too late, as is the similarly moving final sequencenewsreel footage of a tearful Clarence Norris at a press conference in 1976, just after he had accepted a full pardon from Alabama governor George Wallace. By then, the other Scottsboro boys were dead. Norris, who had spent years in a cell adjacent to the execution chamber and had heard the last words of dozens of condemned men, was the only Scottsboro defendant to have what the filmmakers characterize as a full life after prison.
In their five years of research, Goodman and Anker turned up a treasure trove of material: a half-dozen eyewitnesses, a long-buried archive of courtroom photographs, newsreel footage preserved in the Soviet Union. But the necessity of conforming to the 90-minute format of American Experience, the PBS series that funded Scottsboro, is an illustration of the double bind that serious documentarians face, now that they have nowhere to turn for funding but public and cable television. Without television money, they can't afford to do the research necessary for a film as ambitious as Scottsboro. But the money ties them to TV formulas: Analysis is reduced to sound bites; actors' voice-overs are used to pump up the drama of archival texts. (Frances McDormand's hammy reading of the trial testimony of one of the supposed rape victims, Victoria Price, is especially egregious.) Scottsboro is fine TV, but it suggests that too much material was left behind in the AVID storage file.
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