Monday, November 15, 2010
November 15, 2010: Deadly Personal
It took having my boys to make me understand the death penalty. The arguments against it had just always seemed so overwhelming—from the exorbitant costs to the racial and economic imbalances, the failures as a deterrent to, most especially, the constant and very real possibility of executing innocent men and women—that it just seemed to me that any support for it had to come purely from an emotional standpoint, purely from the desire on the part of victims’ families and advocates for revenge for what they have suffered and lost. I still think that’s true, but now I suppose I just get that desire much more fully than I ever had; if someone killed one of the boys, you’re damn right I’d want that person to die. That doesn’t mean that it should be legal—in fact, you could make the case that it is precisely my emotional investment that is the strongest argument against having it be part of our law—but it means that I get how personal this political issue can be and usually is.
It’s precisely that deeply personal side that made the film Dead Man Walking a success, for me—because the film wasn’t trying to embody a particular political opinion or stance, but instead simply created a handful of extremely complex and realistic people (most especially Sean Penn’s death row convict, but certainly also Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen Prejean, the nun working on his behalf, and an Raymond Barry as the father of one of Penn’s victims, among other standout characters) and gave them room to live and breathe and grow over the course of the film. Even in the final scenes it’s not only possible but, I would argue, likely for a viewer to both cry for and curse Penn’s character, and that range of reactions means that watching his death scene (spoiler alert? Well, it is in the title) feels like watching a person (rather than a character, much less a political symbol) die. Which is exactly the point, of course—however you feel about the death penalty, it’s personal in that way too, the state-sanctioned taking of a person’s life. And the incredibly diverse and talented group of artists recruited for the film’s pitch-perfect soundtrack do, by and large, a similarly impressive job of creating the voices and perspectives and stories of realistic people affected by the death penalty in all sorts of ways.
There are lots of candidates for the best song on that soundtrack, but for my money it’s Steve Earle’s “Ellis Unit One.” Earle’s song is, as I wrote yesterday, barely a whisper, both in its nasally voice and minimalist music and in its seemingly insignificant speaker, a second-generation death row guard narrating the story of how he ended up on Ellis Unit One and of his experiences there. The first clue that Earle is creating something much more powerful is the chorus, the superficially unrelated “Swing low/Swing low/Swing low and carry me home.” The hints in those lines are entirely borne out in the song’s two final and most gut-wrenching sections: first the final verse, where the speaker awakens from a dream in which he is the one being executed, “something cold and black pumped through my lungs/And Jesus could not save me/Though I know he tried his best/But Jesus doesn’t live on Ellis Unit One”; and then the final chorus, with one small but crucial change: “Swing low/Don’t let go/Swing low and carry me home.” Suddenly his job and world have become as personal and powerful as they can get—and if the moment doesn’t take your breath away too, well, maybe you’ve already been euthanized.
I’m not trying to sway any opinions on the death penalty—if and when I engage more directly with a political topic like this one, it won’t be to proselytize, I promise—but just to highlight an amazing film and an even more amazing (and certainly less well-known) song, texts that engage with this controversial and hugely complex issue with sensitivity, humanity, and deep power. Doesn’t get any more worth our attention and response than that. More tomorrow, on an equally powerful and complex, and significantly less familiar, poetic voice.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Great live version of the song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Tc700Yi8KQ
An interesting article on Sister Helen Prejean and the film: http://www.americancatholic.org/messenger/Apr1996/feature1.asp