Death Row, Aisle Seat

Newt Gingrich once said that the key to building a new conservative majority in the United States rests with "low taxes and the death penalty." At least insofar as the death penalty is concerned, a generation of politicians has cultivated exactly the public sentiment Gingrich was counting on. From Richard Nixon's "law and order" rhetoric to Bill Clinton's pledge to represent people who "work hard and play by the rules," they have insisted on individual responsibility and harsh punishment--and a direct link between the two that excludes consideration of other, social causes of crime, much less social responses to it.

In any event, 70 percent of the American public now favors capital punishment. The country clings to it tenaciously long after almost all other democratic nations have abandoned it. Indeed, the political pressure is to reduce procedural protections and expedite the death penalty process so we can carry out more executions. So great is the momentum in favor of executions that they sometimes proceed in cases where serious issues of innocence remain unresolved. So routine have executions become that in some states, such as Texas and Virginia, it is difficult for abolitionist groups to mount a visible presence every time the state kills. In the political arena, there seems to be no room left for meaningful debate about anything other than when, how, and on whom we use capital punishment. But is the larger conversation being sustained elsewhere in the culture?

The Green Mile, starring Tom Hanks, is the latest and much ballyhooed addition to the long line of American movies that, at first glance, appear to question the death penalty. The genre generally has two subtypes: films about the redeeming human qualities of a guilty inmate who will soon be put to death, and action-packed, down-to-the-wire, race-to-save-an-innocent-person-from-execution movies. The Green Mile combines elements of both as Hanks's Paul Edgecomb, the head guard on death row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary, sees the redeeming qualities of several inmates and races against the clock to save the innocent one, John Coffey, sensitively portrayed by Michael Clarke Duncan. Coffey is a massive black man who, like Melville's Billy Budd in his stammering inarticulateness, has been convicted and sentenced to die for the brutal murder of a pair of nine-year-old sisters. He is a gentle giant, a tender, compassionate man, about whom Edgecomb says, recalling Captain Vere's observation about Billy Budd, "There doesn't seem to be any violence in him."

As if the film weren't already burdened with enough familiar plot devices, Coffey turns out to be more than just innocent. He is also blessed with godlike powers that enable him to look into the future, see what is in a person's heart, heal the sick, and turn evil against evil. The religious allegory is about as subtle as the two characters' names--Paul and John--and their morally uncomplicated world, in which both inmates and guards are either good, humane, and deserving or evil, cruel, and condemnable, and why they are the way they are is never asked. It comes as no surprise that, in the end, Coffey does not want to be saved from execution. He is "tired of it all ... tired of people being ugly to each other."

The hodgepodge of clichés unfolds, uninterrupted by a single truly inventive moment. But all this is almost beside the point. For in the end, what we have is a long look at the death penalty. And far from questioning it, Green Mile, like most death penalty movies, embraces the very ways of thinking that keep the machinery of state killing in place.

Death penalty films often pivot on a relationship like the one between Edgecomb and Coffey. These relationships involve a person who could be us--a reporter, a lawyer, a prison guard, someone not on death row--who nonetheless gets involved and understands, if he or she cannot prevent, a grievous injustice, or who slowly comes to see potential goodness in someone who has committed monstrous deeds. Watching the cinematic relationship develop, we are drawn to consider whether we could muster as much understanding, compassion, or concern for doing justice as a character such as Edgecomb does. The movie sometimes moves toward a final reconciliation between the condemned and a member of his or her family (The Chamber, 1996), sometimes toward a genuine human connection between the condemned and the person who has taken up his or her cause (Last Light, 1993). So personal, even intimate, are these stories that they make us forget they are framed by state policy.

It may seem unfair to draw large conclusions from movies that are as heavy-handed and predictable as The Green Mile. Yet even in a film of the quality and political commitment of Dead Man Walking (1995), the most widely acclaimed of the death penalty genre, we encounter the same dynamic that is at work in The Green Mile and the others, the same narrowing of focus until the surrounding society and its political choices all but disappear.

Dead Man Walking draws its viewers into the relationship of a compelling couple. Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn) has been sentenced for his part in a double murder in which Walter and Hope, a classically clean-cut boy and girl, were accosted while parking in the woods, were led off into a clearing where the girl was raped and repeatedly stabbed, and were ultimately both shot execution-style. There is no doubt about Poncelet's legal guilt. Indeed, his crime is graphically and repeatedly presented to us. The drama turns instead on the question, Will Matthew Poncelet admit his true involvement and genuine culpability for the murders for which he was sentenced? Or will he go to his death still insisting that he was only an accessory swept up in the evil deeds of another? This time the human connection is with Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon), whose goal is to wrench from this complicated man the admission of responsibility that she hopes will save his soul.

Thus Dead Man Walking is far more concerned with moral arm wrestling--with Sister Helen's ability to tame the savage beast in the tough-talking, defiant Poncelet--than with the question of whether the death penalty is compatible with our Constitution and our commitments as a political and legal community. The conservatives again get their way, as the film endorses Sister Helen's exclusive preoccupation with the issue of individual responsibility, without also seeking to understand the society in which the individual story is imbedded.

"What possessed you," she asks, "to be in the woods that night?"

"I told you I was stoned," Poncelet responds.

"Don't blame the drugs. You could have walked away," Sister Helen says, echoing central themes of the conservative litany on crime--the insistence that explanations are only excuses, and any discussion of why our society is so violent is only a distraction from the one thing that matters, the individual decision to act violently.

"Don't blame [your accomplice]," she continues. "You blame him. You blame drugs. You blame the government. You blame blacks... . You blame the kids for being there. What about Matthew Poncelet? Is he just an innocent, a victim?" It's a speech that relieves the movie of any need to even examine the conditions of Poncelet's life that might help us understand why he did this--and, by extension, relieves the viewer of any need to think about changing those social conditions. The movie's visual reconstruction of the crime reinforces the same message. In black and white, the scene is revisited as Sister Helen comes to see it--first with Poncelet uninvolved in the violence and then with more and more accuracy as he gets closer and closer to taking responsibility for what he did.

After his last call to his family, Poncelet takes the ultimate step. "It was something you said," he tells Sister Helen. "I could have walked away. I didn't... . I didn't have the guts to stand up to him. I told my momma I was yellow. She kept saying, 'It wasn't you. It wasn't you, Matt.' [Pause.] The boy, Walter, I killed him."

"Do you take responsibility," Sister Helen asks, "for both of their deaths?"

"Yes, ma'am," Poncelet responds.

The admission of guilt that the law could not secure is finally obtained. From this point on, the crime scene appears in color. And viewers are reassured of the validity of the prevailing political rhetoric about crime and punishment, reassured that behind every complex narrative of cause and responsibility is a simple truth about voluntary action.

It is only as Poncelet is himself being executed that what we're meant to think of as the "complete truth" of his crime is presented visually. In this presentation, we move back and forth between the scene of the execution and the scene of the crime. By linking the two, Dead Man Walking raises the question of whether the execution of Poncelet is a just and proportionate response to what he did to Hope and Walter. The question is further emphasized by the use of parallel images shot from above--first of his victims lying face down in the woods, arms and legs spread, and then of Poncelet lying face up, as if crucified. Are these the same acts?, the film seems to ask.

Its answer is ambiguous. Dead Man Walking can be read as condemning the state's killing of Matthew Poncelet, or as providing the strongest justification for it by refusing to let us forget the brutality of the crime to which it is a response. But the question is essentially the same as in so many other death penalty movies: Is execution justified in this case?

Whatever their cinematic quality, films about capital punishment--from the James Cagney and Pat O'Brien classic Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) and I Want to Live! (1958) to the listless Last Dance (1996) and Clint Eastwood's forgettable True Crime (1999)--provide most of us with our only way of seeing what happens when the state kills. And far from encouraging us to think seriously about our country's commitment to capital punishment, they push, I fear, in the opposite direction. Visually and narratively, they warn viewers to leave aside the issue of whether the death penalty makes us a safer, saner society--or a meaner, less humane one--and focus instead on the narrower, more dramatically appealing question of whether a particular inmate deserves to die. We are invited to imagine ourselves as jurors or judges or a governor being presented at the last minute with some new evidence, asked to decide whether the John Coffeys or Matthew Poncelets of death row should be spared--not as legislators deciding whether or not to abolish state killing. ¤