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Rural Mississippi in the 1940s: Lucas Beauchamp, a local black man with a reputation of not kowtowing to whites, is found standing over the body of a dead white man, holding a pistol that has recently been fired. Quickly arrested for murder and jailed, Beauchamp insists he's innocent and asks the town's most prominent lawyer, Gavin Stevens, to defend him, but Stevens refuses. When a local boy whom Beauchamp has helped in the past and who believes him to be innocent hears talk of a mob taking Beauchamp out of jail and lynching him, he pleads with Stevens to defend Beauchamp at trial and prove his innocence.Written by
As Lucas turns around at the door to the jail, a moving shadow of the boom microphone is visible on the back of a spectator in a leather jacket with another man's hand on said jacket. See more »
John Gavin Stevens:
[to Chick as he looks out over the crowds in town]
They don't know it out there, but he does. He knows he's finished. He's running through his last few pennies of freedom, and, I reckon, he's gonna spend them the only way he knows... on revenge.
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Take a look at those faces alongside the entrance to the jail. They're not the faces of Hollywood extras. Somebody in production was really smart to take filming to Oxford, Mississippi, because you can't get that kind of authenticity from a studio backlot. Scope out the narrow dusty roads, the frozen earth beneath, and the skeletal trees just barely hanging on. No wonder those faces look hard and unforgiving; they're just reflecting the soil from which they spring. Old man Lucas (Hernandez) better fear for his life, but then he springs from that same hard earth.
The movie works because it tells a good story that neither preaches nor sentimentalizes and even has some suspense. Old man Lucas is not very likable. He's a victim and we sympathize, but he's also haughty and unfriendly. Wisely, the script refuses to sweeten him up. That way we're forced to recognize the effects of racism and injustice on even the less sympathetic. The script also wisely avoids dealing directly with racism since that tends to become preachy and less effective. Instead, we're shown how easily prejudice can convict an innocent man and condemn him to a horrible death. So, it's through our common instinct to see justice done that the effects of racism are exposed, a much more effective pathway. It also makes the actions of the sheriff and the lawyer more understandable since they are otherwise part of the Jim Crow system.
Note how the movie doesn't attack segregation. It's doubtful that old man Lucas would want to mix with whites anyway and there's no hint that even lawyer Stevens (Brian) wants to cross the color line except to see justice done. No, the possibility of reconciliation lies in the future as symbolized by the kid (Jarman) whose head is not yet filled with "notions". He's not exactly friends with Lucas, but he has glimpsed the common humanity of being befriended after falling into the frozen creek. The last line of dialogue also shows him siding with his uncle, the lawyer, instead of his more hidebound parents (the dinner table scene is important and easily overlooked). The lawyer might not join a future civil rights march, but the kid might. That's the movie's realistically hopeful side.
There was a bunch of racially themed movies during this brief 3 year period, 1949-51, (The Well, No Way Out, Home of the Brave, Lost Boundaries). Even famously detached MGM got into the mix with this little gem. Unfortunately, the McCarthy purges in Hollywood put an end to "problem" films that might not serve Cold War ends. Even so, each of these is worth catching up with, not only because they're good movies, but because even with the passage of 60 years and Jim Crow, they're still relevant.
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