“Heavens Fall” is a gripping true story that begins in the spring of 1931 when nine black men are hauled off an Alabama freight train and accused of raping two young white women. The men are quickly tried and sentenced to the electric chair. News of their conviction spreads, forcing an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. New York attorney Sam Leibowitz (Timothy Hutton) travels to Alabama in 1933 during segregation to defend the nine young men - setting in motion an epic legal battle that ultimately changed the course of American jurisprudence.
Winner of the “Best Feature Film” Award at the Hollywood Film Festival and an official selection of SXSW, “Heavens Fall” features knockout performances from Timothy Hutton (“Kinsey”), Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), Leelee Sobieski (“Eyes Wide Shut”) and David Strathairn (“Good Night, and Good Luck”).
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One of the most shameful chapters in America's ugly racial history is dramatized in writer-director Terry Green's Heavens Fall
, an account of Alabama's infamous "Scottsboro Boys" trials in the 1930s. As the film opens (in '33), nine young black men have already been convicted and sentenced to death for the rape of two white girls, based almost entirely on the girls' dubious testimony. When an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court results in a new trial, New York defense lawyer Sam Leibowitz (Timothy Hutton, sporting a thick NY accent) agrees to represent the boys. While he's an unqualified success on his own turf, having never lost a capital case, Leibowitz faces enormous, if not insurmountable, odds once he arrives in Alabama. Not only is he a Northerner among Southerners and a liberal Jew among conservative Christians; the bigger issue, of course, is the South's culture of racism, an ethos so endemic, so matter of fact, that it's almost banal. As the trial of defendant Haywood Patterson proceeds, it's pretty obvious how it will turn out; despite the transparent perjury of accuser Victoria Price (an effectively nasty Leelee Sobieski), the recanting of the testimony of the other "victim," Ruby Bates (Azura Skye), and Leibowitz's skillful dismantling of the prosecution's case (not to mention the almost total lack of actual incriminating evidence), another conviction is as inevitable as the sunrise. Still, there is some occasional shading here amidst all the black and white extremes: the presiding judge, James Horton (a low-key David Strathairn), appears to have a conscience, as does Leibowitz's court adversary, Alabama Attorney General Thomas Knight, Jr. (Bill Sage), who knows his case is weak but is hamstrung by the region's racist "traditions." As it happened, the trial depicted in Heavens Fall
(the title comes from the saying "Let justice be done, though the heavens may fall") wasn't the last for the Scottsboro Boys. But this movie, with its period feel enhanced by its excellent cinematography (by Paul Sanchez), costumes, sets, and bluesy musical score (by Tony Llorens), is a compelling slice of a very big but not very tasty pie. Bonus features include two mini-documentaries, one a standard "making of" and the other depicting the filmmakers' struggle to withstand the onslaught of Hurricane Ivan while filming on location in 2004. --Sam Graham