Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Collateral Damage in the Justice System

I Confess (1953, black & white)
The Wrong Man (1957, black & white)

There’s nothing I like better than finding old movies that I have never seen. Actually, I didn’t find these two movies, they were given to me as a Christmas present from my stepdaughter and her husband ─ two of four movies that were part of a Turner Classic Movies bundling of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers.

My initial elation was because of the stars of the films ─ Montgomery Clift in I Confess and Henry Fonda in The Wrong Man. The main reason I like these two actors is that they both make the most of the understated intensity that they bring to their work. Then there is the Hitchcock factor. He has never made a movie that I didn’t like. But, as always for me, it’s the storylines that make these movies.

Both films are about innocent men who are accused of committing a crime. In I Confess, a priest is tried for a murder he didn’t commit. In The Wrong Man, a case of mistaken identity leads to having a musician charged with a series of robberies that he didn’t commit. As headlines in the past several years show, the reality of innocent men going to prison or facing execution is a familiar story in the American justice system. And while charges against both men are brought on rather flimsy evidence, that is not what I found most interesting about these stories. What did grab me was that although by movies’ end both are exonerated, the lives of their families and friends were negatively impacted in devastating ways.

In I Confess, the priest’s innocent meetings with a married woman who was once his girlfriend becomes the basis of the alleged motive for the killing of a blackmailer. At trial, the prosecution tries to portray these meetings in a most tawdry light ─ the first such meeting happening after the Clift character returns from war, before he learns that she is married and before he joins the priesthood. The woman, played by Anne Baxter, is forced to admit that she still loves the priest ─ an admission that one would expect should cripple her relationship with her husband.

As for the priest, he genuinely appears to have given his life totally to God. But public opinion prefers to believe the worst of the priest even after the jury finds him not guilty because the prosecution failed to place the murder weapon in his hand. But before the priest is finally proven beyond a doubt that he is innocent, the wife of the actual murderer is killed by her husband, who is trying to prevent her from letting his guilt be known. The real killer also kills someone else before a policeman’s bullet ends his life. As for the alleged paramour, when she sees that the priest has been exonerated, she and her husband go home, where we can assume they will work on repairing their marriage.

Financial problems plague the musician in The Wrong Man, which is based on a true story. The musician ─ who has a wife, played by Vera Miles, and two sons ─ walks into an insurance office to find out about taking a loan out on his wife’s policy to pay for some dental work. The insurance rep mistakenly identifies him as a man who robbed the agency a month earlier. The rep’s identification is backed up by the woman who had originally faced the robber, leading to the musician being taken into custody for questioning. Then, an error on a writing sample adds fuel to the fire and after being identified by the two women again ─ this time in a lineup ─ the musician is arrested.

Although the musician cannot make bail, his brother-in-law can and does. They hire a lawyer who they are afraid they can’t afford and begin to search for witnesses that will prove he was elsewhere at the time of the crimes. Unfortunately, two of the witnesses have died and they are having trouble finding the third one. I need to note here that the Miles character had been chastising herself for being a bad wife who has been unable to handle the family’s finances. Then when finding the witnesses become a problem, the wife blames herself for her husband’s arrest and shuts down emotionally and becomes unable to handle her normal responsibilities. She is taken to a psychiatric institution, where you get the feeling that she is glad to no longer be a burden on her family.

Eventually, the real perpetrator is caught ─ identified by the two women who were so sure the musician was the thief. Now, no longer under the cloud of prosecution and confinement, the musician goes to give his wife the good news. But her depression is inconsolable and it takes two years before she is able to rejoin her family.

The collateral damage done to the families and friends of these two innocent men, as well as to innocent bystanders, are an unfortunate part of our criminal justice system ─ and other that more diligent police work, I’m not sure what can be done about it.

What I can do, however, is recommend that you take a look at these two fine films.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Exploitation of Aliens

Avatar (2009, color, 3D, IMAX)
District 9 (2009, black & white)

I stray from my usual obsession with vintage movies to discuss two films that have created quite a buzz last year, a buzz that continues into the new decade for a pair of Oscar’s Best Picture nominees. And a buzz on which I feel compelled add my two cents.

To begin with, the two movies couldn’t be farther apart graphically. Visually, Avatar is a stunning beautifully, vividly colorful story that feels like a moving 3-D mural, while District 9 is a photographically gritty, old-school black-and-white offering that intentionally adopts a documentary format. But their graphic differences are not where I want to spend my two cents, except to say that they both are fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable cinematic efforts. I’m much more interested in investing my Lincoln coins in a subject of the interpretations of their plots.

Thematically, these two movies have somewhat similar storylines ─ the human exploitation of being from other planets. In Avatar, the humans go to another planet to create their greed-inspired mischief, while in District 9, the aliens come to Earth and are exploited by humans trying to learn how to use the visitors’ bio-mechanic weaponry. The concept of showing the human race in such a predatory portrayal has upset many people, quite a few of whom have denounced the movies ─ especially Avatar. And from what I’ve seen, these denouncers are almost exclusively members of the culturally dominant segment of our society. Also, the idea that these movies could be meant to be allegories about race relations has upset other groups of people. For instance, some black folks are upset that the good guy in Avatar who leads the alien civilization in revolt is Caucasian and say the movie is an attempt to assuage white guilt. And because District 9, although made in South Africa, is said to be an allegory about illegal immigration is the United States, I suspect that more than a few Latinos are upset by being portrayed as disgusting-looking shrimp-like beings euphemistically called “prawns” by the humans in the movie.

If ever two movies were ripe for dissection, these are them. While I do believe that these films are attempting to make political ─ and in the case of Avatar, environmental ─ points, some of this fuss I just find too self-serving. For instance, as my daughter points out, the blue creatures of Avatar could be looked upon more as Native Americans than African Americans. And although I agree with her analogy, I also think that the blue humanoids could be looked upon as Africans, as opposed to African Americans. However, this is a useless argument as far as I’m concerned. For me, the movie is about exploitation, regardless of the color of the people being exploited.

Which brings me to the exploiters in these two movies: In Avatar, my daughter sees Halliburton as the root of the evil. While I can agree with that, in this movie I tend to see the companies that made their fortunes on the backs and property of native people that were exploited during the colonial period of world history ─ like the Dutch East India Company purchasing Manhattan Island for $24 in trinkets. But that’s a generational difference of perception. As for District 9, my younger son and I agree that the exploiter is the military industrial complex that is ever-seeking a more efficient way of killing.

As for the claim that Avatar offers a way for white Americans to assuage their guilt over their historical treatment of peoples of color: I suppose this could be true, but I think this is another useless argument. While the bad guys in both movies are led by whites, black bad guys abound in both stories. Also, while once the only depiction of black people in movies that were distributed to general audiences were shiftless, lazy, big-eyed, inane caricatures, that is not longer the case. Now, there are just as many white fools in movies as there are black ones ─ and, more importantly, there are many, many more instances of black heroes on the big screen than ever. So if you’re looking for a way to show how whites assuage their guilt, you could just as easily look at how many of them enjoy movies where a black person saves the day.

I discussed the Avatar observations with my older son, my daughter and her husband. I discussed the District 9 themes with my younger son. They immediately dismissed a lot of the brouhaha as bull doodoo ─ and I have to say that I agree with them. They didn’t want to hear about who did what to whom back in the day. They know race relations aren’t perfect, but the world they see is one that is trying to get beyond the lingering garbage, a clean world where race hatred eventually becomes a thing of the far-distant past. Are they being na├»ve? Maybe. Are they being unrealistic? Again, maybe. Are they being overly optimistic? Certainly not. Should they fear the racist attitudes and actions that still occur ─ or for that matter, the religious fanatics of all stripes who would do them harm? No, never! I’ve tried to teach my children not to fear racial animosity or violence ─ to accept that it occurs and try to not let it turn them into whimpering victims. Life is too short and too sweet to be looking over your shoulder afraid of the person walking behind you. Most times, that person has too many other things on his or her own mind to be concerned about you. So my children’s reaction to my discussion was most heartening.

And speaking of religion, apparently the head of the Catholic Church has condemned Avatar because the aliens worship nature rather than God. This is an argument I don't understand. It seems to me that since God created nature, when you worship nature you are singing the praises of God's generous creation that sustains all of us. So in fact, you are worshiping God.

But back to the exploitation: We should all remember that although the United States was founded as an imperfect union where exploitation was rampant, many people of color overlooked that flaw and contributed to making this country great ─ people like Crispus Atticks, Phoebe Frances, Sacagawea, Frederick Douglas, George Washington Carver, W.E.B. DuBois, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, to name just a few. Racial barriers are coming down every day ─ as evidenced by our current President, Barack Obama, and the growing number of interracial couples showing up in movies, on television, in the streets and in our families. (In case you haven’t noticed by my picture, I’m black. My mother’s father was a Native American. My children’s mother is of Chinese descent. My White French wife’s daughters’ father was born in Puerto Rico. And my son-in-law is of Irish descent.) Has the United States cleansed itself of prejudice and bigotry? Of course not, and it won’t until all forms of prejudice and bigotry are eliminated from the hearts and souls of every single citizen of the United States. And then maybe exploitation ─ which often happens when people take advantage of those of their own race or ethnicity as well as when one racial or ethnic group takes advantage of another ─ will cease to be.

One final observation about the movies: The main character in both films ends up acquiring the racial makeup of the oppressed. But then, there is another difference here. In Avatar, the hero gladly accepts his new circumstances. In District 9, the “hero” longs to return to his original self.

Look, whatever a person gleans from a movie, a book or any story largely depends on what was ingrained in that person by his or her parents, relatives and other influential people in their lives, as well as that person’s life experiences. There’s just no way around this. So while it’s always tempting to place a value judgment on these things ─ and Lord knows, I do it all the time; just look at my previous and future blogs ─ sometimes it’s useful to ignore that something that you think is aimed right at your very being and just sit back and enjoy the movie. After all, it’s entertainment. Let it entertain you.