Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

In Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, two white women accused nine black teenagers of raping them on an Alabama train in 1931.  Their claims set off a chain reaction that eventually reached the Supreme Court — and launched the modern-day Civil Rights movement. Shot over five years on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, this fascinating installment of the “American Experience” series dissects the particulars of the case through the words of those who lived it.  This tells the somber tale of these nine black men accused of rape, and how their case affected the country, the world, and the future of the Civil Rights movement.  This is one of the saddest stories ever told, an account of an outrage that helped to ignite the modern civil rights movement. It isn’t easy to watch the horrors that befell these poor innocent nine boys who happened to be riding on a freight train when a white woman decided to accuse them of rape so she wouldn’t be arrested for vagrancy.  I could not help seeing it as it was largely portrayed in the film — as an involvement of northern progressives scandalized by the savagery of Southern white life — and the little-man mentality of the Solid South, in which opposition to “outside intervention” trumped any notions of justice, as opposed to mob rule.  The story of the Scottsboro boys is sufficiently removed from the present to soften the edge of the tragedy. But then why did I find the documentary so disturbing?  The surface story is obvious: Black young men and boys were wrenched out of their lives, falsely accused and imprisoned. That has been duplicated so many times in our history, continues today and is fodder for the continuing fight against racism in this country. OK, that’s nothing new, it’s a given in America, otherwise why would we need so many laws against racism?  What really rocked this cynic was the skillful presentation by producer/directors Goodman and Anker of the story within by the story: The kids were really crushed under the weight of everyone’s personal agendas: The Communists needed their agitprop…….The defense attorney had his insurmountable ego to defend…….The prosecutor was going to ride on the boy’s backs into the governor’s mansion………The accuser had her freedom and honor (sic!) at stake. All of Alabama was stuck in The Southern Disease of fear, denial and xenophobia (and with the Yankees on the doorstep, to boot!) No one cared about the obvious perversion of justice or the fate of the young men and boys — except Judge Horton.  Horton then found that America extracts a terrible price from the just.  The story itself is obviously compelling and vitally important. But I also want to praise the clarity and skill with which the documentary tells this story. The narrative, the archival film and photos, the observations by contemporary historians and by people who actually lived through these events all come together harmoniously to form a seamless story that sweeps the viewer along from the first moment and continually makes you want to watch to find out what happened next, and what happened after that.  Altogether a brilliant example of documentary film-making at its best.  The Town of Scottsboro Alabama is embarrassed to this day for the actions and notoriety surrounding this case. This reveals a community’s need to see “black boys get kilt for rapin’ white wimmen.” I suspect some white Alabamans “still got a mad on that them boys ditten’ hang.” It is horrifying to think Americans can get it wrong in a death-penalty case. But it’s nauseating to see herculean effort to discount valuable evidence, in order to bring about six electrocutions.  Hard to believe that this horrific incident took place only a few generations ago.  Given the orientation of Southern voters since the late sixties and the positions taken by politicians there, I wonder just how much things have really changed since the 1930s. No, there are no more lynch mobs roaming the streets, and the crackers now have bank accounts and may well live on the right side of the tracks, but the small-mindedness and prejudices still, I fear, live on within the masses like so many cocooned monsters waiting to emerge.  In the news recently is a travesty regarding the imprisoning of six black high school students in Louisiana for fighting with white boys who placed “lynching” nooses in a tree on school grounds. A local judge called the nooses a “prank,” and had the white boys suspended from school for a couple of days–then sentenced the black boys to a combined 100 years in prison. This is in 2007 — or is it still 1855? I don’t know why a black person stays in such a dungeon as the American South.  Every American owes it to himself or herself to learn about how it was in those days, and never forget it — and to ask why African-Americans are still disproportionately incarcerated in this country, and face harassment and persecution each and every day of their lives by a system riddled with racism. This is American history – real American history.  I love the PBS American Experience series. I hear the theme song, I get blitzed by images of American triumph and tragedy, and then the episodes blow me away.  I’m glad I rented this because it educated me on how justice was different in the South and North — and how many people (Black and White) in the North supported these young men in the 1930s.  This film is five stars to me, but not a celebration. This is an indictment of the shadow side of America. Viewers would do well to supplement their video knowledge with some reading of the various books on this case.  It is an amazing piece of our story caught on film  —  gripping truth that has enriched my perspective on the historical issues of race in the USA.  This is a fabulous and chilling documentary.  This is a story that every American should know.  It is a must see!  Documentary American Experience 2000 NR 90 minutes.


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