To search, type one or more key words below.
Search Search the web.
 Page Bottom 

The 'Scottsboro' Ordeal and Its Indelible Stain

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): January 19, 2001, Friday    
FILM REVIEW; The 'Scottsboro' Ordeal and Its Indelible Stain      By ELVIS MITCHELL    .

January 19, 2001, Friday

FILM REVIEW; The 'Scottsboro' Ordeal and Its Indelible Stain


It is laudable that the gripping and thoughtful documentary ''Scottsboro: An American Tragedy'' is being released during the week of Martin Luther King's birthday. After a run on the festival circuit last year, ''Scottsboro,'' which could be subtitled ''A Series of American Tragedies,'' opens for a week at the Screening Room. ''Scottsboro'' relates the story of one of the longest-running and most horrible courtroom pursuits of racism in American history.

The title may have been inspired by the historian Dan T. Carter's 1969 book, ''Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South.'' It was the basis for ''Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys,'' the well-meaning if stolid television docudrama of the late 1970's. Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker, who jointly produced and directed this film, are conscious of the drama of the story, in which nine African-American teenagers were accused of raping two young white women on an Alabama train in 1931.

The accusations by the women, who had questionable pasts, were not challenged because they had unleashed whites' sexual fear of black men. ''Protection of white women might pivot around all of Southern culture,'' notes the historian Robin Kelley. Even more disturbing is the description by Clarence Norris, a surviving Scottsboro defendant, of the frothing mob: ''Not a black person around anywhere. Everybody was white but us nine. 'Let's take these black sons of bitches and put 'em up to a tree.' I thought I was going to die.''

What he and the other defendants experienced was just as awful: three trials and at least 10 years in prison (more for some, including Mr. Norris; they were no longer boys by the time things came to a close).

Their ordeal seems the definition of cruel and unusual punishment, while their case was the talk of the globe. ''Scottsboro'' makes clear that the case had taken on the dimensions of a tableau from Russian literature, although the failings that led to the trial were all too American.

The film includes trial transcripts and editorials read by actors including Frances McDormand and Stanley Tucci. Andre Braugher delivers the narration.

''Scottsboro'' is all the more tragic because it made focal points -- and martyrs -- of nine farm boys whose minor crime (hitching a train ride to find work) changed the course of legal procedure in this country. Their cause provoked a fight between the N.A.A.C.P. and the Communist Party. The glorious note to emerge from this skirmish was, as Mr. Carter and the other experts assembled for this documentary observe, that the Scottsboro case united black and white efforts against sanctioned bigotry for the first time since abolition.

Mr. Goodman and Mr. Anker show, in a linear and organized fashion, that the case was a series of apparent defeats that added up to victory in the long run. That victory culminated in Mr. Norris's successful petition for a pardon from, of all people, Gov. George C. Wallace. That pardon came for Mr. Norris and the others -- who had never met until they were charged with a crime they didn't commit -- in 1976, 45 years after their arrest.

Before their release, they had suffered constant beatings from guards while imprisoned so close to the electric chair that they could hear the executions, a regular reminder of their potential fate.

The filmmakers know how potent the material is, and they don't hammer away at the obvious. History makes all of their points for them, as does the most telling summation by the historian Wayne Flynt near the end of ''Scottsboro: An American Tragedy'': ''The courage of the Scottsboro boys is just surviving.''

An American Tragedy

Produced and directed by Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker; written by Mr. Goodman; director of photography, Buddy Squires; edited by Jean Tsien; music by Edward Bilous; released by the Screening Room and Cowboy Booking International. At the Screening Room, 54 Varick Street, at Laight Street, TriBeCa. Running time: 84 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Andre Braugher (narrator); Frances McDormand, Stanley Tucci, Harris Yulin, Jeffrey DeMunn and Daver Morrison (additional voices); and Dan T. Carter, Robin Kelley, Clarence Norris and Wayne Flynt.

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

horizontal line
What's New Page to home page e-mail  Page Top