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Scottsboro: An American Tragedy

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Behind the Scenes: Question 3

Tom Hurwitz
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Let's move a little bit now to the story of your father going down to Scottsboro.

One of the most moving things for me about this film was the rhyme between my own experience with Scottsboro and my father's experience with Scottsboro. And it happened this way. When Danny Anker called me to work on this film, he said that he'd been looking for some footage that my father had shot in Scottsboro that he'd found reading some graduate student's work about my father. And I remembered my father telling me the story about his travelling down to Scottsboro, Alabama and Decatur, Alabama and shooting footage for a film about the Scottsboro trial. But I also remembered him saying that he didn't know where that footage had wound up and he was pretty sure that it didn't exist anymore. So I'll continue the story by narrating my own experience which is that I - we flew down to Alabama with Danny Anker and Barak Goodman and got in a car and we drove to Scottsboro.

So we came into town and Scottsboro is a traditional Southern town in that it has a county seat, in that it has a courthouse square - a big square, Victorian courthouse with cannons in front of it and a square of streets around the courthouse with the office buildings of the town and I guess probably the various offices - clerks and lawyers' offices that are involved with the courthouse and the county business arrayed around that. And we'd begun to make shots of the courthouse where the first trial took place. And it became clear to us that we really needed a high angle of this courthouse square. And we looked around to find the best building. We went up - I found it and there was a stairway that led up to a lawyer's office on the third floor. I walked up the stairs to the lawyer's office and asked them if we could make a shot from their window. They were a little bit kind of stand-offish but they finally agreed and I began to set up. I did make a shot but the window was locked shut. There was no way to open the window and there was really only one window that was - that would make that shot. So we didn't get as good a shot as we hoped. We made do in other ways and we got finished with shooting.

It was about sunset and we got back down and got into the car. And as we were driving out of town, Danny said to me, well, do you want to hear what your father says about shooting in Scottsboro? And I said, yes, I didn't know that there was... Well, what they'd done is they'd found an oral history that my father had done about this experience and Danny had transferred it to cassette tape and he popped it into - it was cued right up to the point which my father was talking about this exact experience. And he popped it into the cassette deck in the car and my father narrates his experience of coming into Scottsboro and driving around the courthouse square and stopping. He was with a bunch of other reporters, probably from various left-wing journals and looking for a place to make a good shot of the courthouse and he needed a high angle. So he went to a building - now it was the afternoon and the sun would have been right only from one side of the square in the afternoon. And he goes into a building and he goes up to the third floor to a lawyer's office and in fact, they had a window that looks right out on the courthouse. And he asked if he can make a shot from the lawyer's window and they tell him wait there. And he waits and he waits and he waits for two hours. And he tries to leave and they don't let him leave. They say, "No, you better stay here." And finally, they say, "OK, it's time for you to go now." And the sun has now gone down and it's almost dark. And they accompany him down to his car.

Now, there are several men and he sees that his other friends have all been put in the car and there's a group of men standing around the car. And they tell him to get in the car and they tell him to follow them. And they drive out of town - my father drives out of town following a car of men from the group that had taken him downstairs and behind him is another car following them. Now, he - this is a time when there were continued lynchings in the South, where there were union organizers that had been killed in the South in the years surrounding it, several, perhaps a dozen. And it was not unreasonable for them to fear for their lives. In fact, nothing happened. They got to the edge of town and the car pulled over and they went on down the highway. The car behind them followed them for a while and then let them go and they went on out of town and went to Decatur where the trial was. That was the story and I looked at Barak and Danny and I said, You know, we both chose the same lawyer's office. We both chose the same shot, my father and I, 60 years separated.

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