April 02, 2001 12:00 PM

An American Tragedy

PBS (Mon., April 2, 9 p.m. ET)

Show of the week


This Oscar-nominated 2000 documentary reopens a 1930s civil rights case—nine indigent black youths falsely accused of raping two white women aboard a freight train—and turns it into a gripping narrative of courtroom surprises (one of the women recanted on the witness stand) and twists worthy of a TV movie. In fact an NBC docudrama, Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, aired in 1976. But while NBC played up the courage of Scottsboro, Ala., judge James Horton, who set aside the guilty verdict of an all-white jury in the second of several trials, this American Experience film takes a more jaundiced view. As one historian interviewed puts it, “Almost everyone had an agenda”—from politically ambitious prosecutors to a brilliant yet publicity-seeking defense attorney to the American Communist party, which championed the Scottsboro Boys to spur membership. Their lives, marred by violence in prison and later as free men, make for a harrowing chronicle.

Bottom Line: Edge-of-your-seat history lesson

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