Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

It always seems strange that events like those in Scottsboro from the 1930s are not better known. It also seems hard to not make a good documentary based on the events. In 1931, two young white women accused nine young black men of rape. Looking back now, the charges were obviously a fabrication. However, those were different times, with different modes of thinking (which are hopefully better now). The trial of those men and the events occurring in the aftermath helped to give the Communist Party in America wide publicity, change laws, and jumpstart the modern civil rights movement.

Scottsboro: An American Tragedy helps to give attention to these little known events. Written Co-directed by Barak Goodman (The Merchants of Cool) and Daniel Anker with sparse narration by Andre Braugher (Duets, Frequency), Scottsboro gives a straightforward, fact-laden accounting of events. Barak and Goodman provide a dearth of historians to provide the play-by-play on what turns out to be extremely riveting events. In Salem witch trials-like atmosphere, the nine went through trial after trial with the help of New York lawyer Samuel Liebowitz. The trials play out like soap operas, with surprise witnesses and intense testimonies. The two women accused the nine men of raping them while on a train in Scottsboro, Alabama.

The movie is about much more than the trial. All the parties used the boys as means to their own ends. The Communist Party used them as a rallying point around the world. The trial became a rejection of Northern ideals. These Southerners on the jury did not find anything right about a Jewish lawyer from New York defending nine black men accused of raping two Southern women. This review is purposefully vague on some of the exact events because it is much more exciting to let things unfold within the documentary. It is amazing how one thing happens after another, and how things move in unexpected directions. Scottsboro certainly deserves a higher profile in history, because of both its crass injustice and its importance in later events.

It is also amazing how documentaries like this can obtain remarkable archival footage and photographs. Apparently, most of it was just sitting there waiting to be found. Barak and Goodman do a good job presenting these, and the voices that read letters and articles (who include Frances McDormand and Stanley Tucci) never sound like they are emoting. There is even some video on later events. Can something like what happened in Scottsboro nearly 75 years ago happen again today? Hopefully not, and with records like this documentary, it will help ensure that something as blatant does not happen again.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 28 minutes, Not Rated but an easy PG.

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