Judge William Lee considered recusing himself when he discovered a character in this movie shares his name. But why let personal bias keep him from a review?
"Years from now, people will hear the word Scottsboro and it will mean something."
In 1931, nine young black men were pulled off a freight train by an angry Alabama mob. They were accused of raping two women and subsequently sentenced to death in the electric chair. Lawyers for the Communist Party appealed and the United States Supreme Court eventually granted a retrial for all nine defendants. Skilled New York defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz went to Alabama to defend the Scottsboro boys himself. He was certain that the strength of the evidence would win the case but he wasn't prepared for the deep racial prejudice he found. Heavens Fall is the tragic true story of jurisprudence undone by racial prejudice.
Facts of the Case
Samuel Liebowitz (Timothy Hutton, The Last Mimzy) is a smooth New York lawyer who has never lost a capital case. He's guarded when the International Labor Defense (the legal arm of the Communist Party) approaches him but after reviewing the transcript of their initial trial he's convinced the Scottsboro boys didn't receive a fair trial. Sure in his conviction and confident of the facts he makes the trip to Decatur, Alabama to defend the first of the boys being retried. Along the way, he's a little taken aback when another train passenger tells him, "They don't need defending. What they need is a rope wrapped around their skinny necks 'til they're dead."
Another visitor from the North is William Lee (Anthony Mackie, Half Nelson), a journalist for a Chicago newspaper that caters to the black community. He goes to Decatur to cover the retrial but he quickly learns that he is just another outsider from the big city regardless of the color of his skin. He needs to win the local black community's trust before they will sign his petition to the judge asking for permission to observe the court proceedings.
The lead prosecutor is Thomas Knight Jr. (Bill Sage, Mysterious Skin). Born and raised in the South, he is the son of a prominent Alabama justice. Determined to show that a "carpetbagger" can't come into their state and tell them how to apply the law, he's also aware that winning this case would be a huge boost to his career.
Judge James Horton (David Strathairn, The Bourne Ultimatum) is the local justice presiding over the first retrial. Under the spotlight of this racially charged and politically sensitive case, it falls upon him to maintain order and ensure justice is properly served. He instructs the jury, "Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall."
For the sake of viewers unfamiliar with the history of the Scottsboro boys' trials, I won't reveal the outcome of the trial depicted in this movie. However, the opening moments of the movie are conducted with the assumption that the audience has a basic knowledge of these events. And the attitude of the filmmaking does make a strong presumption toward the innocence of the accused men. Nevertheless, the story still generates some suspense and manages to unfold with a satisfying degree of drama.
Writer-director Terry Green is mainly interested in the 1933 retrial and he wastes little time getting there. The incident of the alleged rapes is actually given little screen time in Heavens Fall. As the movie opens we catch glimpses of some violence between two groups of men on a train. It's presented in a jarringly edited and fragmented manner. Watching it a second time, after viewing the entire movie, the sequence of shots is understandable. But it was almost incomprehensible on the first viewing—especially without prior knowledge of the story. The introduction of the main characters feels similarly rushed. Liebowitz is quickly established as the hero of this story without much information to support his credentials as a lawyer. What is his track record? What is his position in New York? Why does the International Labor Defense choose him for the case? It feels as though the director assumes the viewer is already familiar with this piece of history before sitting down with the movie.
After all the characters have been introduced and the action moves to Decatur, the movie settles into a respectable courtroom drama. To the director's credit, the North-South stereotypes are avoided and each of the main characters is presented as a complex and believable individual. Timothy Hutton gives an energetic performance as the experienced New York lawyer. He's pretty sure of himself at first but is thrown off his game when he realizes his style isn't speaking to the locals sitting on the jury. Bill Sage gives a sympathetic portrayal of the prosecutor determined to win his case though he may have his own doubts regarding the strength of the evidence. Leelee Sobieski (Joy Ride) is effective as Victoria Price, one of the boys' accusers, whose cold demeanor and stubborn testimony invites pity and suspicion. The reliable David Strathairn is strong as the judge with the weight of the world on his shoulders and justice on his mind.
Given the solid performances from the principle cast, it's disappointing that the Scottsboro boys are kept in the background. We don't learn enough about these characters to get a sense of the reality of their situation. They are merely symbols of a cause that is being argued by white men. It's ironic that one scene has the journalist Lee advising Liebowitz to make his defendant more human to the jury. It's advice that would have benefited the movie as a whole.
Heavens Fall is a good looking production with modest but convincing period details. The image quality on this DVD is fairly good with a reasonably sharp picture and a natural-looking, warm color palette. Unfortunately it is presented in an incorrect 1.78:1 aspect ratio that crops off the image on the sides. The cinematographer's preference for widescreen compositions is hinted at by shots where actors are cut off by the edge of the screen. The final evidence comes from the end credits framed at 2.35:1. A quick comparison with the trailer Ð included on this disc in the proper aspect ratio Ð shows how the widescreen picture would have been much more satisfying with balanced compositions that display more of the nicely realized set design and art direction. The stereo soundtrack works fine for this presentation with its understated music and strong dialogue.
Two 15-minute featurettes offer a glimpse of the action behind the camera. "Creating the Fall" spends a lot of time interviewing the director and the actors who elaborate on the dimensions of their characters. More interesting is footage showing the son of Judge Horton accepting a posthumous award for his father. Assembled from different video sources and edited with clips from the movie, the audio and video quality of the featurette varies considerably. "Surviving the Fall" documents the preparations of the crew as Hurricane Ivan approaches. The town where they filmed just happened to be in the direct path of the hurricane.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The strength of Heavens Fall is the portrayal of the three men of law arguing and considering the evidence before them. Hutton, Sage and Strathairn make their characters men of intelligence and reason. As a result, the dramatic tension of the courtroom scenes is diminished somewhat because there is no true villain involved in the proceedings. Those scenes circle around an inevitable conclusion instead of creating suspense over whether or not the accusations are true. The outcome of the trial is a matter of history but Green's assumption that the audience knows where the story is headed robs the sense of immediacy from those scenes. It doesn't help when the script settles for standard courtroom twists like the surprise witness. There is also an absence of real danger outside the courtroom. The mood of the community is supposed to be heated but even the angry mob can be diffused with a few stern words.
This is a handsome production of a story with good intentions. Solid performances from the entire cast make the characters believable but the focus is on the lawyers instead of the accused. The absence of a clear villain throughout the movie denies it a sense of conflict but it still works well as a courtroom drama. Regrettably, the cropped framing on this DVD is a significant slight against what should have been some very good photography and it can't be overlooked.
The filmmakers are acquitted for their respectable efforts to spotlight this episode of history. The charges against Allumination Filmworks are stayed. Their past and future conduct will be entered into evidence in the event of a retrial.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Allumination Filmworks
• "Creating the Fall"
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