Director Chinonye Chukwu
Director Chinonye Chukwu with actress Alfre Woodard (left)
USA (113 mi) 2019 d: Chinonye Chukwu
I am invisible, understand, because people refuse to see me.
⸺Prologue to Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, 1952
A wrenchingly grim morality play that exposes the harmful repercussions of the death penalty by revealing the banality of prison routine, where those working on the premises are equally confined behind prison corridors, and while they’re allowed to go home every night, they’re haunted by the habitual bleakness of the experience. Stripped down to a spare minimalism, the film feels prolonged and overly detached, even hopeless, often losing that essential emotional connection. Largely modeled after Troy Davis, a black death row inmate executed for murdering a white police officer by the state of Georgia in 2011, who eloquently spoke directly to the parents of the murdered victim just moments before his execution claiming he had nothing to do with the murder and carried no weapon at the scene. With no forensic evidence connecting him to the crime, the case was based solely on eye witness testimony, with 7 of the 9 eye witnesses either recanting or contradicting their original testimony, claiming they were pressured by the police to identify Davis as the killer, while Davis himself originally pled guilty, later claiming his confession was coerced under police pressure. Of the remaining two witnesses, one may have actually been the shooter, as a second witness heard his actual confession, but the courts never allowed this into the record, leaving serious doubts about the guilty verdict. Equally appalling, three previous times his execution was stayed at the last moment, with Davis tragically forced to endure the final experience with imminent death a total of four times, which feels unusually cruel. Opening and closing with the meticulous recreation of a state-ordered execution, there are incredible pressures involved with carrying out this act, not only to the prisoner, but to the medical staff, the guards, the prison chaplain, and the warden who oversees the entire procedure up to the moment of death. What role does this play in their lives, especially when it happens a multitude of times, as it’s hard to prevent death from having such a prominent and significant impact on one’s life, as the chilling magnitude of the act itself tends to overpower everything else, as there are families involved, lawyers, public pressures, vocal demonstrators on the grounds of the prison, news organizations clamoring for access, not to mention the effect it has on other prisoners, where in their eyes all prison support staff become complicit with the execution. This film leaves no doubt as to which side of the political aisle it leans, advocating for the abolishment of the death penalty altogether, which is what one-half of Americans feel as well, but the states with the highest execution rates would include Texas, Virginia, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, Georgia, and Alabama, all former Confederate states that once allowed slavery, rarely apologizing or offering regrets for their former barbaric mistreatment, historically viewing prisoners (and slaves) as less than human, undeserving of better treatment, intentionally underfunding the prison facilities, where there are simply no visible political winds of change in the foreseeable future.
Currently utilized by 29 states, while banned in 21 other states, the death penalty for federal crimes was reinstated in July 2019 after a 16-year hiatus. Despite problems associated with the death penalty, with the medical profession refusing to provide lethal drugs for executions and doctors excluded from death chambers, as it violates their Hippocratic Oath to preserve life, occasional scenarios have developed with over forty botched executions since the death penalty reinstatement in 1976, where people didn’t die immediately, resulting in a prolonged sense of lingering agony due to technical malfunctions. One such case exists at the outset, where an execution doesn’t go as planned, as they try repeatedly to find a vein to hold the IV entry, including his feet and stomach, causing excruciating pain, then the medicine doesn’t kick in, with witnesses present fully aware, sensing a catastrophe, becoming something of an extreme embarrassment, with internal conflicts requiring reviews and professional oversight, yet the death row warden, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), behaved in exemplary fashion, as all went according to plan except the results, as the procedure itself failed, her twelfth execution in seven years, never really rising to that same hair-raising level of emotional intensity again. The film is seen through her eyes, as she’s responsible for all the decisions, carrying out much of the dirty work herself, which includes a meticulous sharing of the final details with the prisoner before it happens, taking them through the entire process ahead of time, so they know exactly what to expect. What the film reveals is a series of isolated moments, each one painfully recreated in exact detail, with little left to the imagination, as it takes us directly into the execution chamber. Williams is obviously affected by what happens, as it challenges one’s basic humanity to the core, stripping you bare, under the circumstances, where there’s no place to hide. The film recalls Boo Junfeng’s Apprentice (2016), a similar exposé of executions taking place in Singapore, where the hangman’s attention to details is exact, with the drama elevated by having such an extreme sense of firsthand intimacy of an execution taking place. This film idealizes a best case scenario, where the people involved sympathize and care deeply about the outcome, as their collaboration with death has an impact on their personal relationships, which are difficult to maintain, with such an ominous force continually hovering over them, always threatening, where that’s something difficult to compartmentalize, as if you could simply ignore it all by command. Instead it plays out as a gut-wrenching melodrama, where the closeness to death wreaks havoc on families, who are never shielded from the pain, finding themselves continually exposed to further emotional damage. According to recent reports from Washington State University, the rate of PTSD among prison employees equals that of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, with higher rates for women, black employees, and those with more than ten years of experience. For those working on death row, the numbers are likely even further elevated, where the effect on staff for putting a potentially innocent victim to death is immeasurable.
Winner of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, the result of eight years of research talking to wardens, men on death row and their lawyers, the film primarily generates empathy, which is an essential ingredient if one is searching to obtain meaningful social justice. Much of the film’s raw dramatic power can be read on Bernadine’s face, as the warden’s life is scrutinized from all angles, from her husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce), who describes her life as “an empty shell,” pushing him away, teaching herself not to care, learning how to live without feelings, becoming somehow impenetrable, yet she can’t sleep at night and appears to have a drinking problem (and may be having an affair), or the next prisoner scheduled to die, Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge), who maintains his innocence, shutting down emotionally, sharing little, but does appreciate visits from his attorney Marty Lumetta (Richard Schiff), who is himself retiring with this final case, as it takes too much of a toll on his life. Little background information is provided, hardly anything about the former life of Woods, so when a rush of new information is provided on the eve of execution, one feels suspicious of the motives, like why now, as it feels like a narrative device to build him up only to let him down in the end, where the crash is that much more dramatically excruciating. Since so much time is spent in the actual prison, one should mention just how overly quiet it is, which is not a reflection of reality, as prisons are chaotic and noisy, particularly in underfunded, dilapidated, and overcrowded facilities that were not built to absorb sound, instead reverberating with profanity, loud conversations, even uncontrolled yelling erupting throughout the day and night mixing with mechanical noises and the clanking of the iron cells. It may surprise viewers to see a female warden, as there were none prior to 1970, yet aided by civil rights legislation they are regularly assigned to both men and women’s facilities, but even fewer black females, as it’s a position dominated by white men (70%). In the state of Texas, Warden Cynthia Tilley in Teague has the unique distinction of having had a father in prison that she visited regularly as she was growing up, but overall, black women comprise only 3% of all wardens, far fewer on death row. There are studies (Female Wardens - Academia.edu) that suggest female wardens are more likely than men to reflect a more caring ethic, like supporting the goal of prison rehabilitation, more readily accepting suggestions from staff, including greater input from correctional officers and inmates, while they are less likely than men to advocate for the reduction of services, programs, and amenities. However, as is shown in the film, they are also less likely to seek support in addressing the stresses of their jobs, which means (particularly overseeing death row) they are overly internalizing the process, often with negative results, as so much of one’s inner self gets shut down, as there’s no outlet for those complicated built-up feelings and emotions. There’s a brief moment between Williams and the prison chaplain (Michael O’Neill) about how to best help the prisoner from becoming too overwhelmed by the bleakness of the systematic routines, but they could just as easily have been talking about themselves, suggesting state sanctioned killing has an odor of toxicity to it that’s impossible to shed for everyone involved.