Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

( USA / 2000 )
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Powerful Oscar nominated documentary about when fate places people in the wrong place at the wrong time and when fear and suspicion fuel injustice. The once-famous case of the nine Scottsboro Boys is the tale of such a dramatic miscarriage of justice that started in the early 1930s: nine poor young black men, charges of white rape, a fancy New York Jewish defense lawyer, an all-white Alabama jury, sentences of death culminating in a dogged international (Communist inspired) campaign to free the "Scottsboro Boys".
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Formats: Digital Copy, DVD
Running Time: 84 min.
Theme: American History, Crime, History, Human Rights, Law and Justice, Politics
Language(s): English
Director(s): Barak Goodman
Producer(s): Daniel Anker, Barak Goodman
Cinematographer: Buddy Squires
Editor(s): Jean Tsien


  • Film makers Barak Goodman and Daniel Anker dig deep into the story and its ramifications, exposing how the twin evils of racism and anti-Semitism combined to foment institutional injustice, and led — if a silver lining could be found — to the triumphs of the civil-rights movement two and three decades later.
    New York Daily News
  • 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
    The New York TImes
  • The first full-scale documentary about the history of those years, and it lays out lucidly the involvement of the Communist Party in the young men's defense and the ways in which the trials, against the backdrop of the Depression, replayed the murderous quarrels of the Civil War all over again.
    New York Magazine (Vulture)
  • Goodman and Anker adroitly shape a cohesive drama out of a complicated history.
    Village Voice
  • Utilizing archival material and newly filmed interviews, Goodman and Anker cogently evoke the tenor of the era.
    Joe Leydon, VARIETY
  • The climate of Scottsboro during the Great Depression is brought to vivid life by Anker and Goodman's storytelling

Academic Notes

  • American Experience - PBS
    Film Description

    Samuel Liebowitz standing with Haywood PattersonIn March 1931, a freight train crowded with homeless and jobless hoboes left Chattanooga, Tennessee, bound for points west. A short time after it crossed into Alabama, a fight erupted between two groups of hoboes-one black and one white. The train was stopped by an armed posse in the tiny town of Paint Rock, Alabama. Before anyone knew what had happened, two white women stepped from the shadows of a boxcar to make a shocking accusation: they had been raped by nine black teenagers aboard the train.

    So began one of the most significant legal fights of the twentieth century. Before it was over, the Scottsboro affair-so-named for the little Alabama town where the nine were put on trial for their lives-would divide Americans along racial, political, and geographic lines. It would draw North and South into their sharpest conflict since the Civil War, yield two momentous Supreme Court decisions, and give birth to the Civil Rights Movement.

    But for all its historical significance, the Scottsboro story is at its core a riveting drama about the struggles of nine innocent young men for their lives-and a cautionary tale about using human beings as fodder for political causes.

    Scottsboro: An American Tragedy tells this extraordinary lost story for the first time on film-from the points of view of both North and South. Viewers travel from the jails of Alabama to the salons of New York and meet a fascinating gallery of characters: the lead defendant-a defiant black man who refuses to lay down before the power of Alabama; the defense lawyer-who comes to see in the case echoes of the discrimination he has felt himself; the accuser-a poor white woman who finds in her lie a route to respectability; and the Southern judge-who risks the scorn of his beloved state to deliver justice.

    The filmmakers spent five years making Scottsboro: An American Tragedy-weaving together interviews of the last surviving witnesses to the trials, and never-before-seen archival footage and photos from as far away as Russia, with letters, diaries, newspaper editorials, and trial transcripts. The voices of Andre Braugher, Frances McDormand, Stanley Tucci, and Harris Yulin and others, help bring the film to life.

awards & accolades

  • Sundance Film Festival, USA - Nominated Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary
  • Washington Jewish Film Festival, USA - Won Audience Award for Best Documentary
  • Birmingham Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, USA - Won Audience Choice Award
  • Emmy Awards, USA - Won Emmy Award for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special
  • Academy Awards, USA - Nominated for Oscar for Best Documentary
  • Writers Guild of America, USA - Won WGA Award for Best Documentary - Other Than Current Events
  • Organization of American Historians, USA - Won Erik Barnouw Award

Festival participation

  • Sundance Film Festival, USA 2000
  • Washington Jewish Film Festival, USA 2000
  • Birmingham Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival, USA 2000
  • Urbanworld Film Festival, USA 2000
  • Emmy Awards, USA 2001
  • Academy Awards, USA 2001
  • Writers Guild of America, USA 2002
  • Organization of American Historians, USA 2002

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Additional Info

Production Company: Social Media Productions, Inc.
Distribution Company: Films Transit

  • The Scottsboro Case and its impact on the civil rights movement.

    Co-Director Barak Goodman discusses his own fascination with the Scottsboro
    Case and its impact on the civil rights movement.

    BBC Four: What drew you to the Scottsboro Case as a subject for a film?

    Barak Goodman: This is the great American subject and I’ve always been
    interested in race and the treatment of black Americans. I knew very little
    about Scottsboro until I read a fantastic book called Stories of Scottsboro
    by James Goodman which tells the story from many points of view so you
    really got a filled-out picture. I believed it would make a perfect film and
    went to Jim and asked if he’d like to cooperate. He was very enthusiastic
    and the film is very loosely based on his book.

    BBC Four: What did you find particularly filmic about the story that added
    to the book?

    BG: Jim is concerned mostly with historical questions. I became very
    interested in the characters – the human drama of these nine young men and
    their mothers dealing with this juggernaut. And I was especially interested
    in the relationship between the Jewish lawyer and these southern black boys
    – his commitment to the case and how he changed from when he first took the
    case to when it ended.

    BBC Four: When he’s first introduced in the film he seems the least likely
    person to help these boys…

    BG: He was a fairly vain, showboating lawyer for many years. He was
    associated with criminals and gangsters and not such high-minded causes as
    this. But I think underlying that he was very much committed to justice. I
    think a lot of Jewish-Americans had that imbued in them. He quickly became
    intersted in things other than money and fame. He became completely
    committed to proving a case that he believed passionately in and was unable
    to prove in an Alabama courtroom. They simply would not hear and that became
    something that just would not sit right with him. He just would not let go.

    BBC Four: Were the people in Alabama at all reluctant to talk about the

    BG: Everybody in this part of Alabama knows about the case but they know it
    second-hand and we weren’t interested in hearing second-hand accounts. It
    was quite a search to find people alive who knew anything about it. But once
    we found those people there was a real range. Some completely refused to
    speak to us, in fact closed doors on us. Others were the opposite. They were
    eager to talk to us because they felt that the real story hasn’t been told.
    They felt that this part of Alabama had been unfairly stigmatised.

    BBC Four: The American Communist Party features quite heavily in the story.
    This must be one of the last times that they had a major impact in US

    BG: That’s probably true. Obviously the Communist Party declined
    precipitously after it was revealed what Stalin was doing. We have been
    criticised by ex-Communists as being too hard on the party in this film –
    judging them to be too opportunistic. That might be true of the
    rank-and-file members but I think the leadership really was seeking to use
    this case and turn it into propaganda for the party. But I do think the role
    of the Communist Party has been greatly underestimated. They were the first
    on the scene in many of these horrible injustices.

    BBC Four: How do see the Scottsboro Case in relation to the civil rights
    movement events that most people are familiar with in the 1950s and 60s?

    BG: You can’t start the history of civil rights in the 50s and 60s – it has
    much deeper roots than that. What we tried to say is that this is the
    beginning of the integrationist civil rights movement, which was the key to
    achieving civil rights in the United States. It would have been impossible
    had it remained a solely black issue. And that is largely due to the
    Communist Party’s intervention in this. Their rank-and-file members could
    turn out crowds of tens of thousands of people in the urban centres of
    America and all over the world. In fact they did that. These people, mostly
    white, really set the stage. And many other civil rights leaders had their
    minds and point of views shaped by this very spectacular incident. I think
    it’s really the beginning and needs to be recognised as such.

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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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