A look at the infamous "Scottsboro Boys" case that occurred in Alabama in 1931, in which nine young black men were arrested, tried and quickly convicted in the rape of two white women, despite overwhelming evidence that showed their accusers had falsely accused them and the fact that one of the women later admitted that no rape had in fact occurred (although both had had sexual relations with their boyfriends on the day prior to the "rape"). The case was one of the first that shined a spotlight on what many called the "legal lynchings" that occurred in the South whenever blacks were accused of crimes, especially against whites and most especially against white women. Written by
A penetrating documentary of America's racist and politically-charged climate, circa 1931-1950
Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman's penetrating documentary should have been renamed "Scottsboro: An American Outrage." The many injustices committed by Alabama's legal system and the American media against nine African-American young men for a 1931 crime (the rape of two white women, one of whom later admitted that consensual sex with their own boyfriends occurred the previous day,) a crime that the men did not commit, is recalled with sorrow and anguish by almost all of the documentary's participants.
As the viewer watches, the remembrance of one of many horrific "legal lynchings" of innocent African-Americans throughout the 1880's to the 1950's, and beyond, fuels a sadness, outrage and anger, particularly when one recalls similar circumstances today where scores of innocent (and non-prominent) Black men continue to be convicted of crimes against white females, when insisting their innocence. (For example, the Central Park Jogger case in 1990 New York -- arguably an eerie and disturbing parallel to 1931 Scottsboro case chronicled in the documentary -- and the recent case of Paris Drake, convicted in New York 2000, of brutally assaulting Nicole Barrett with a brick.)
"Scottsboro" looks at the racist attitudes exuded by Southern whites, attitudes responsible for the four-time convictions of each of the nine Black men in the case, in the face overwhelming evidence in the men's favor. The documentary balances this with some ironies, including that of avowed racist and segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace, who admitted that a wrong had been committed against the Scottsboro Nine. Wallace pardoned one of the Nine in 1976. Even some of those in the media who had called for the mens' convictions and executions later realized (too late however) that a terrible mistake had been made.
The political climate is documented, with Jewish New York lawyer Samuel Leibovitz, who (while encountering bigotry himself) steadfastly and doggedly defended all nine of the Scottsboro men until all were freed after serving long prison sentences and facing certain death. The legal battle took well over a decade. And the International Labor Defense, a communist group whose efforts helped internationalize the Scottsboro Nine case and gain large support of a moral and financial nature for the Nine, are given time in Anker and Goodman's documentary.
"Scottsboro: An American Tragedy" is narrated by actor Andre Braugher, and features the voices of several other actors, including Frances McDormand and Stanley Tucci. McDormand and Tucci effectively evoke the times, speaking the voices of some of the real-life participants during the documentary's courtroom scenes. Their work, and that of others places the viewer at the heart of the racial dynamics of the American South.
A wealth of important books on the Scottsboro Nine case exist (see amazon.com), and Barak and Goodman's documentary serves as a good start to a viewer's research on this disturbing injustice of the legal system, not an end.
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