01 June, 2005
The film gDead Man Walking,h directed by Tim Robbins, is based on a book of the same name, by Sister Helen Prejean. The book in turn is based on factual events – the film is thusly based on a true story. Sister Helen (played in the film by Susan Sarandon) responds to a letter from a man on death row, Matthew Poncelet (played by Sean Penn). She speaks with him for a while, and then agrees to try and help him with an appeal, to save him from execution.
Although Sister Helen fails to save Matthewfs life, in the end, as the film portrays, she does manage to save his soul. The main point of the film seems to be the saving of the manfs soul – quite likely the main point of the book as well, which makes sense; it was written by a nun. Saving the soul should be her main point.
However, it can be said that she saved his soul by trying to save his life – and in trying to save his life, she ran right up against the vagaries of the American – to be specific, the Louisianan – justice system.
One of the first things that jump out from the film is the emphasis on the socio-economic status and background of Matthew. gYou donft find any rich men on death row,h he says, fairly early on. The topic, is in fact the focus of the governorfs pardon board appeal – if Matthew had been wealthy, his lawyer argues, he would have been able to pay for a great number of services (including those of a superior defense attorney) that he had not had access to. This, his lawyer contends, would have ensured that he would never have been on death row.
Itfs a compelling argument, and illustrative of the real disparity that exists between the wealthy and the poor and disadvantaged in this country. Good lawyers command high fees (save the few who do occasional pro bono work – and which of they would be interested in a case like Matthew Ponceletfs?), and only the wealthy can afford those fees.
All idealism aside, we do have some noticeable stratification in our justice system, and this movie highlights it in a subtle, yet compelling fashion. One of the interesting facets, that comes out only in the directorfs commentary, is the fact that, apparently, one of the pardon board members confessed to Sister Helen that the board was ga sham.h As a vehicle that is ostensibly the last chance at life for a man without someone working on his appeal, it seems rather disturbing – and disheartening – that a man who served on such a board would think so.
Itfs just one more subtle emphasis on the disparity between the disenfranchised, and the so-called eruling classes.f
One of the other interesting points that first shows up early in the film is Matthew Ponceletfs familiarity with the law. Hefs prepared everything that he needs for his appeal – he only needs a lawyer to file it for him. Sister Helen is surprised by his knowledge, which perhaps reflects her own lack of knowledge. There is a general expectation among people (and by epeoplef I mean the general public) that nobody but lawyers would have – or would be able to have – such knowledge.
Matthew Poncelet proves otherwise, which brings to mind a saying Ifve heard before – gMost ignorance is vincible ignorance; we donft know because we donft want to know.h But as Matthew says, gWhen your backfs against the wall, you learn the law right quick.h
Like most points in the film, they donft dwell on it – in fact, itfs never brought up again in the entire course of the film. It is however, I think, a very important point. The law is commonly perceived as this great, inaccessible monolith, but that scene – those few lines near the beginning of the film – offers the option that it might not be as inaccessible as it seems.
The directorfs commentary brings up another good point with regards to the death penalty itself. In any other context, the treatment of death row inmates would be regarded as the actions of a psychopath – and yet we condone it within the system. There are many people who are adamant foes of the death penalty, and yet I wonder if they have ever brought this point to light.
I have personally always been an advocate of the death penalty – there are some people who really just need to die. I donft feel the need to justify myself here, but the film does make you think. What does the death penalty offer us? It provides a way to dispose of the most terrible factors of society, to deal away with the truly evil, the emad dogs.f But not every death row inmate is like that. Yes, they can be vicious, but even vicious people are often still people.
Killing a person is wrong, is the message of the film. Society condemns killing, despises murder. The stiffest penalties of our justice system are reserved for those who take the life of another. We all like to think that wefre better than the people who sit on death row, but I think the real question that the film asks, is are we better? We abhor violence, and despise murder, and yet we give license to the State to commit these things against certain of our fellows. And something that is often forgotten by the people of this country is that we are the State – a government by the People, for the People, of the People. Can we, the film asks, really think ourselves any different?
There is really so much in this film, layer upon layer of subtleties, far too much to be covered by a short analytical paper.