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Total Crap: 9.09%

1 review, 5 user ratings

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Heavens Fall
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by Erik Childress

"Let Justice Be Done Though We've Seen It Before"
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: We have heard many stories, mostly on film, of the turbulent South before the Civil Rights Movement. Invariably, the cattle prod which sparks the discussion is some spoiled, uppity white woman accusing a black man of rape. Best represented in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, this catalyst for the injustices against African-Americans in a land of racism also factored in prominently in the tale of Rosewood and in the form of other violent acts in The Birth of a Nation. The most well-documented case historically though is that of The Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths accused and sentenced to death for the violation of two women aboard a train. It’s a story worthy of attention in any decade, but Heavens Fall while well-acted, only goes about as deep as a made-for-television affair.

The incident in question took place aboard a train in 1931 Alabama. Victoria Price (Leelee Sobieski) and Ruby Bates (Azura Skye) accused the hobo-n’ youths and no one thought twice to avenge the lost innocence of the girls. Two years after a speedy trial and conviction, the International Labor Defense retained the support of Samuel Leibowitz (Timothy Hutton), who does some Jim Garrison-like research of the case file, recognizes inaccuracies and takes a trip leaving the usual disapproving spouse to pout at home.

Very little from here focuses on the boys themselves, a fact that my colleague Dann Gire would attribute to his theory of “the new racism,” Hollywood’s way of using a white crusader to further the causes of the helpless black man. There’s a pair of brief scenes with them in the jailhouse, but from here on out it’s mostly the trial and Leibowitz trading facts and philosophies with the prosecuting attorney, Thomas Knight Jr. (welcomely played by Bill Sage as not just another example of Southern pride.) Nothing is wrong, in essence, with these scenes. Hutton is particularly strong, doing some of his best work in years as said crusader, but this is a rich story that needs a more encapsulating approach rather than just the A-B-C facts.

The trial proceeds as most all movie trials do – our side comes out swinging for a couple rounds, then a vicious suckerpunch comes from the prosecution, leading the defense to reevaluate what went wrong and then a surprise witness seemingly turns the tide back to the underdog. But where’s the meat to go with our potatoes? As one of the first turning points in Civil Rights history, nothing is made of the ILD’s support from the Communist party. The sympathetic judge gets the face of all sympathetic faces in David Strathairn, but other than one quick scene with Hutton, his personal motivations for defying the community’s wishes are left unfounded. Leibowitz’s alleged bribe of Victoria Price is also left out of the fray, which could have given Sobieski a chance to actually act rather than creating such a droning presence that no man would want to speak to, let alone touch.

I don’t always agree with Mr. Gire’s assessment of “the new racism.” Sometimes such stories reflect the historical nature of oppression. Films like Mockingbird or Glory might fit into that mold but either adapt the period or at least give the minorities their day to speak for themselves. Others like Cry Freedom or The Hurricane put the white guy front-and-center or rely on him as a key instrument to help those who cannot help themselves. Heavens Fall unfortunately ends up in the latter category. I won’t go so far to justifying that “white guilt” is the presiding factor in the decision for the way it plays out, but writer/director Terry Green subdues the outrage by keeping things straightforward and even-keeled. There’s little to applaud and only a base “what a shame” kind of anger. All in all, Heavens Fall is an introduction to history; a prologue whose past should be better explored.

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originally posted: 03/22/06 04:50:52
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Florida Film Festival For more in the 2007 Florida Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/15/09 Shaun Wallner Yawn!!! 1 stars
8/02/08 Art Hilgart Should be screened in every high schollin America. 5 stars
12/08/07 Allan Johnson The film simply did not have enough black perspective in it for me. 3 stars
10/28/06 Jay Cohen The film is a somber, chilling look into America’s ugly history of race relations. It is no 4 stars
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Directed by
  Terry Green

Written by
  Terry Green

  Timothy Hutton
  David Strathairn
  Leelee Sobieski
  Anthony Mackie
  Bill Sage
  Azura Skye

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