The movie was based on the historic story of the Scottsboro Boys. On March 25, 1931, a train from Chattanooga, Tennessee going through northeastern Alabama was carrying homeless hobos and people looking for work. After the train entered Alabama, a fight started between the white hobos and a group of African-American teenagers. Subsequently, the train was stopped by an armed posse in the town of Paint Rock, Alabama, and two white women got out making an accusation that they had been raped by nine black teenagers, the Scottsboro Boys, on the train. Despite the fact that no evidence was presented, the case was allowed to go to trial, and the Scottsboro Boys were later quickly convicted and sentenced to death. The issue was noted by the International Labor Defense, and the courtroom case received wide attention. The verdict by Alabama courts was later overturned twice by Supreme Court. After the third time the case went to trial, the charges against four of the defendants were ended, while long prison sentences remained for the other five. In 1943, on the condition that the imprisoned Scottsboro boys promised to behave well, the state of Alabama began to allow the five men to leave prison one by one. Their wounded lives after prison are also summarized in the documentary.
Directors Daniel Anker and Barak Goodman said they were inspired to make the documentary by James Goodman's 1994 publication "Stories of Scottsboro," and understood that their film "would be reopening old wounds." Before the filmmaking, they researched for five years looking for materials concerning the courtroom pursuit. Anker and Goodman found the eyewitnesses of the event, as well as a record of courtroom photographs, trial transcripts, and archival newsreel footage kept in the Soviet Union. The research was funded by television network Public Broadcasting Service's series American Experience. The title of the film is speculated by the media to have been inspired by the 1969 historian book "Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South." by Dan T. Carter.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy was narrated by Andre Braugher. It used trial transcripts and editorials which are voiced by Frances McDormand, Stanley Tucci, Harris Yulin, Jeffrey DeMunn and Daver Morrison. The film was co-produced by American Experience and Social Media Productions and distributed by Cowboy Pictures.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy was released theatrically on January 19, 2001. It appeared at the New York International Documentary Festival, the Urbanworld Film Festival and took part in the documentary competition at Sundance Film Festival in January 2000.
The documentary earned $2,991 in its opening weekend and went on to gross $6,123 domestically in one week.
Scottsboro: An American Tragedy received positive reviews from critics. The film was rated 4 stars at TV Guide, and got a score of 74 out of 100 based 8 reviews at Metacritic, classified as "generally favorable reviews." The New York Times gave the documentary positive review, as critic Elvis Mitchell considered the film a "gripping and thoughtful documentary". According to critic Amy Taubin of The Village Voice, the film "offers a compelling outline" of the trial, and the directors "adroitly shape a cohesive drama out of a complicated history." However, Taubin also criticised the actors' reading of archival texts, calling it "hammy" and "egregious".
The documentary was nominated for the 2000 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. It was chosen as the Best Documentary at the Urbanworld Film Festival, and won the Audience Award at New York International Documentary Festival. Scottsboro: An American Tragedy was also given the Primetime Emmy Award for Non-fiction Special.
As the writer of the documentary, Barak Goodman received the Writers Guild of America Award in the category "Documentary - other than current events." In 2002, the Organization of American Historians selected this film as the winner of the Erik Barnouw Award, recognizing Scottsboro: An American Tragedy as the best documentary film of the year concerned with the study of American history.