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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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Behind the Scenes: Question 2

Tom Hurwitz
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Let's talk a bit about your father. What did he do and what is his background?

My father's name was Leo Hurwitz and he was one of the second generation of the pioneers of American documentary film. If you think that [Robert] Flaherty and Pare Lorentz were the first American documentarians, Leo Hurwitz, Paul Strand, Willard Van Dyke, several others, were the second generation of American pioneers in the documentary. He was a very political filmmaker and his early films were filled with social commitment and with the use of the film as a social document. Later in his life, his films had more to do with art and less to do with politics.

What was interesting about his life?

My father was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to a family of immigrants and somehow got the idea to take the test for the one scholarship that was given in the New York area to Harvard University. And he took the test. It was a Harvard Club Scholarship and he won it. So he went to Harvard. And I think it really was one of the formative experiences of his life, as a - and in addition to growing up on the Lower East - on the equivalent of the Lower East side in Brooklyn. And he got out of Harvard and graduated right into the middle of the Depression. There weren't any jobs in particular. He spent two or three years doing a bunch of different things. He was an editor of New Theater Magazine which was the journal of the - among other things, a group theater which was a tremendously seminal theatrical group in New York. It gave birth to the Method and brought [Konstantin] Stanislavsky to the United States. And he took still photographs and he began to think about making films. When he was at Harvard, he had written a letter to Charlie Chaplin asking him if he would work with him and Chaplin hadn't written back. So he'd given up on that and I think that - he doesn't ever say it but I have a feeling that if the Scottsboro boys film wasn't the first film that he ever did, it was very close to the first film that he ever did. Because he went down there in 1933, that was three years after he graduated from college.

The world that my father graduated college into was a world with a tremendous amount of grievances and a tremendous amount of hope at the same time, interestingly enough. Because of all this social movement in the United States, although there had been lots of union movements, but at this time it was beginning anew. I think that probably happens in America a lot. People felt that they were beginning things anew and that really they could change the world. And really at the center of this movement was the Communist Party which, either through itself or through organizations that it was in charge of or controlled, really spanned the progressive causes like the desire to fight Fascism as it was growing in Europe, like the growth of unions, like the desire to stop people from being evicted from their houses, and like the movement for racial justice. You can really say, I think, that with the exception of the traditional African American organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP, the Communist Party was the main organ for struggle against racial injustice in the United States at the time.

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