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I had the pleasure of seeing the world premiere of Heavens Fall at the
Austin's Paramount Theatre as part of the SXSW film festival. It is a
powerful film about the great injustices that occurred during the
infamous Scottsboro trial of nine black men accused of raping two white
women in Alabama in the 1930s.
While this story has been told before in a 1976 NBC TV movie, Judge
Horton and the Scottsboro Boys (which I haven't seen and which I
suspect would be pretty difficult, if not impossible to find on VHS or
DVD today) and more recently in the powerful PBS documentary,
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy, it's a story worth telling again for
each new generation.
A film like recent Best Picture winner, Crash, reminds us that racism
still exists in our society today. A film like Heavens Fall provides
historical context and reminds us of the slow progress that has been
made since the days of the Jim Crow South. This film reminds me of
other recent films that have reminded us of some of the other tragic
episodes of past racism such as Mississippi Burning, Amistad, and,
particularly, the marvelous film, Rosewood. As with all films of this
genre, some events and characters have been fictionalized in an attempt
to capture of the spirit of the story rather than all of the detail.
Heavens Fall features first-rate performances by Timothy Hutton as the
Jewish New York lawyer who travels to Alabama to defend the 9 black
men, David Strathairn as the the trial judge, and Bill Sage as the
prosecutor. The movie moves a bit slowly. The lead characters,
including the prosecutor, are presented as human beings taking away
from the stereotyping of white southerners which is quite easy in this
type of film. It's occasionally a little predictable and clichéd -
something almost unavoidable with this genre. Ironically, I think that
more could have been done to develop the African-American characters.
The accused are not really presented in great depth and the one black
character, a journalist, seems a bit extraneous to the plot of the
story. Still, basically a good job is done in presenting the main
characters as human beings struggling for truth and justice as they
define it in a highly imperfect world.
At our world premiere screening, the director and many of the actors
were present and spoke about the making of the film. Timmothy Hutton
was unable to attend, but as the director and other actors were
speaking to the audience, Hutton phoned into to the director's cell
phone to receive loud cheers from the audience and answer a few
questions via cellphone to microphone. The film was clearly a labor of
love by the director and actors. I hope that it finds a distributor and
is seen widely, because Americans need to see the realities of their
history in order to learn from it.
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