I saw this at the IDA Festival, ArcLight, Los Angeles. It's about how racism and also the pressure police and DA's feel to obtain convictions can sometimes trump justice. Here, on shaky evidence, African-American Darryl Hunt goes to prison for 19 ½ years for the rape and murder of a young white woman.
There are many death row and miscarriage of justice stories, and like this one, they all mostly sympathize with the accused. For me, DEAD MAN WALKING is a model of balancing sympathy for the victim and their loved ones with sympathy for the railroaded convict. My group's after-movie conversation explored how exactly the system went wrong how did the DA justify to himself not giving out the state's files to the defense (this was uncovered by a journalist years later, after numerous appeals had been denied)? After the initial conviction by an all-white jury divided the community along racial lines, why did the judge in the second trial decide to try the case again in an all-white area? We weren't discounting racism or sloppy police work or a judge or DA motivated by political expedience, but we all felt people rarely act with purely malicious intent, life tends to be much less simple. We each resisted when the film would show the DA or his witnesses in a bad light, encouraging us to mutter "those racist bastards" or "he's definitely innocent" under our breath. The film spends a lot more time with Darryl and his supporters (all of whom seem moral and sympathetic) than with the victim's family, so one's natural inclination becomes to WANT Darryl to be innocent (i.e. the filmmakers know the outcome and are leading us there). But since we don't know how it would turn out, we feel a little nudged, and personally, when nudged, I tend to stand my ground or even push back. In spite of the shaky police and DA work, just as the filmmakers didn't know for sure over those ten years, as I watched I always kept alive the possibility Darryl was not completely innocent. Despite what an odd and not particularly accessible character the victim's mother was, I never forgot what it must have been like to be her (or worse yet, the victim), nor the incredibly tough job of a DA and police department to make their community feel that they can not only catch but convict the criminals who harm their citizens. I was glad the film included the mother's last speech in the court, where she looks Darryl and the judge in the eye and expresses her total conviction that no matter what the DNA evidence says or the court does, she's certain Darryl raped and killed her daughter. It's a brutal, harrowing moment no fictional feature can hope to match. Darryl's response and the very ending of the film are powerful, too, and while you can probably guess what happens, you can't guess exactly, and I won't spoil it.
The film struck me in a broader, deeper sense, too. Daryl and his wife and everyone involved in contesting the verdict over nineteen years, including the filmmakers, beautifully illustrated how when people endure hardship and injustice, events can and often do align in profound, amazing ways, too. Living proof of MLK's adage that unearned suffering can be redemptive for the soul. (Spoiler alert: if you're worried, skip the rest of this paragraph) A young white legal team loses the case but decides to make it the focus of their professional lives. A former Black Panther decides to organize the community in protest and begins a defense fund which sustains the nearly twenty year effort. After ten years in jail, Darryl gets a brief furlough and on his first day of freedom, meets the woman who becomes his wife and his rock through the hard times to come. Darryl is partially exonerated by a DNA test and offered his freedom if he'll plea bargain down to a lesser crime but decides to go back to jail rather than admit any guilt. Fifteen years and many unsuccessful appeals later, out of the blue, a local reporter decides to do an 8-part front-page series on the case, which turns up new leads. Two young filmmakers are on hand to capture these events as they happen, live, and stick it out ten years wondering whether the convict they're hoping is innocent actually is.
It was also powerful to see the people who the documentary is about and the filmmakers together at the Q&A after the screening, seeing what they are doing with their lives now. What for Darryl (and his family and supporters) was a 20-year tragedy has blossomed into a better, more purposeful, fulfilling life than he'd have probably ever known, and the same is true of all who helped see this through. The story is a testament to Darryl and his supporters' courage, determination and faith. The whole incredible sequence of events encouraged in me a knowledge so oft-forgot (or trivialized) it cannot be overstated, in the goodness of life and our fellow human beings. After an emotional Q&A, rather than ask a question, the last audience member, an older woman, offered her gratitude to all of the participants and filmmakers for who they were and what they were doing with their lives. It was simple and moving. She spoke for me and I think everyone. That the film evoked such generosity of spirit perfectly illustrated what we'd already received from it.
The film-making is excellent, too. Great music, on purpose, clear, dramatic and human. One of the best documentaries of this type I've seen, seriously. I can't imagine what Darryl went through, nor what his friends and family and the filmmakers went through as this all played out, disappointment after hopeless disappointment. And let's never forget the victims and the wreckage left behind, either. Disturbing, yet inspiring, check it out.