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Music of the Week — September 24, 2006

Sunday Night Journal — September 24, 2006

Though the Heavens Fall

How many status points do I get for attending the Alabama premiere of a movie? Not that many, I suppose. But that’s what I was doing Sunday evening, at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham. The name of the film is Heavens Fall, and the reason there was an Alabama premiere (which comes after showings at a couple of festivals) is that it’s about events that took place in Alabama in the 1930s: the Scottsboro case, in which a group of black men were accused and convicted, then retried and re-convicted, of raping two white women. The charges were almost certainly false, and the reason I attended was that Judge James E. Horton, who overturned the second verdict against the defendants, was my grandfather.

The greatest praise I can give the film is to say that it’s a work of integrity. It portrays the segregationist South and its people, black and white, without either sentimentalizing or demonizing them. And it doesn’t sensationalize the story it tells. That may be working against it in the attempt of the producers to find theatrical distribution for it, but they kept it true to the events and, more importantly, to the moral complexities of real life. So there is no superfluous but steamy love affair, little violence, not a single explosion, and no final fight to the death between defense attorney Samuel Liebowitz and prosecutor Thomas Knight, Jr.

The acting is excellent. And—a relatively small thing, maybe, but one to which Southerners are sensitive—the accents are almost all at least acceptable and mostly very good. I would have believed a few of the actors—in particular, Lee Lee Sobieski and Azura Skye, who play the two women—are actually Southerners. Timothy Hutton does a fine job as Liebowitz, a stranger in a strange land, and Bill Sage is equally good as Knight. The paraphernalia and general atmosphere of the film—location, period artifacts, and so forth—are accurate (as far as I can judge) and effective. Natives will be able to quibble with a few things here and there (for instance, filming took place mostly in south Alabama, where Spanish moss is plentiful, but it’s fairly rare in the Tennessee River valley where the trial occurred). None of those matter much, though.

Of greatest interest to me is the film’s thematic approach. Maybe this is just a reflection of my own interests and attitudes, but what emerges most powerfully is not the treatment of racial injustice—which, let’s face it, has been pretty well covered in popular art—but the necessity of the rule of law for the maintenance of our civilization.

My grandfather was essentially a man of the 19th century. Born in 1879, he had the gentleman’s education of an earlier day, with foundations in Latin and Greek. When he turned twenty-one in 1900, the automobile was still a rarity, but he lived to see men on the moon, and died in 1973. I wonder if there will ever again be a generation that sees such vast and swift change. I was twenty-four when he died, far too preoccupied with being a damn fool to have any idea of what I had missed by not having made more of an effort to draw him out (he was pretty taciturn) and get to know him better during the preceding ten years or so, when he had lived with us.

The phrase “living memory” wouldn’t have meant much to me at the time of his death, but now it seems both poignant and astonishing to say that something has passed out of it, that there is no one now living who has a personal memory of this or that thing. When that happens, it’s significant: it’s the end of eyewitness testimony; from then on we will have only artifacts, books and images (which I often think are actually less truthful than words, but that’s another story). Such is now the case with the world—pre-automobile, pre-cinema, pre-radio and television—into which my grandfather was born; such will soon be the case with the great world war which shaped my father’s generation; such will one day be the case with the tumult of the 1960s which shaped me.

My grandfather’s conception of the law now seems something from another time. He believed in the ideal of justice which is blind to everything except the law and the evidence, knowing nothing of the status, wealth, or place of the persons involved. I’m certain that he did not see himself as any sort of crusader or even as making a statement about racial injustice. It was a question of justice, period, unqualified. He was performing what he saw as very literally his sacred duty, referred to in the title, a Latin motto he had learned as a child: fiat justitia ruat caelum. Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.

Do people involved with the law think that way anymore? It would seem not. There seems to be on the one hand a tendency to treat the law as something like a set of bureaucratic regulations: fundamentally arbitrary rules for an elaborate game, the object of which is to navigate and circumvent the rules for one’s own gain. And on the other hand there is a concept of justice impatient of law, in which law is a sort of working hypothesis to be set aside with little ceremony when it appears to be in the way of someone’s larger idea of justice. Perhaps my grandfather took too much for granted; perhaps he assumed too much agreement about the meaning of justice; perhaps we have reason today to be a little more worried about unjust law as opposed to unjust application of law; but I think he would have had little patience for any notion or hope of obtaining or preserving justice without law.

I’m grateful to the producers of this film, and particularly to writer and director Terry Green, not only for the recognition given to my grandfather but for their giving a renewed voice to the concept of justice in which he believed.

Here is the excellent web site for Heavens Fall, which gives a real sense of what the film is like.

And here is a very fine account of the Scottsboro case .

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