West of Memphis

February 18, 2013 at 6:23 pm | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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Last year, I saw “The Central Park Five,” which has a very similar premise to this film: young men accused of a crime they did not do, railroaded by a lazy and self-serving judicial system, spend years in prison only to be redeemed later.  Both stories are maddening for the way the system can fail and we, as human beings, can collude in that failure.  If we are honest, they tell us something about ourselves and the way we “witch hunt” people in order to feel safe, have answers and make sense of the world.  And they remind us that police and prosecutors are just as human as the rest of us and just as capable of being lazy and self-serving at work, even though innocent lives are at stake (they can rationalize convicting someone without evidence as easily as someone else can rationalize lying on a timesheet or not proof-reading a report).  That said, if you want to see that film and get that message loud and clear, see “The Central Park Five.”  It is a stronger, better made and more disciplined work.  “West of Memphis” veers too easily into the tawdry, the sensational and the speculative.  I am not easily disturbed in a film but I was disturbed by the sheer number of times we had to see photos and videos of the 3 murdered 8 year old boys’ bodies, naked, bound and damaged (including one image that included a face).  Likewise, one theory was illustrated using snapping turtles and a pig carcass in a way that felt exploitative and added nothing to the film.  This is probably the most famous case of an unjust conviction in the U.S. currently and has been the subject of 3 previous documentaries: “Paradise Lost” (1996), “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000) and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (2011).   Rather than the torrid series of slasher films they sound like, this is a group of well-meaning documentaries that strived to keep the boys’ case alive (the three teens convicted of the crime are known as the West Memphis 3 or WM3, for short).  Without the films, it is doubtful they would have gotten their second day in court and been released.  Given current evidence, it is hard to imagine these boys are guilty and I am thrilled that these films have resulted in their release.  However, I have some concern with the need these documentaries have to point a finger elsewhere.  In one of the earlier films, they pointed the finger firmly at a step-father of one of the boys, making it look like he almost certainly did it.  In this film, they have left that man alone and now portray him as an unfairly wronged good guy.  They now point the finger at the step-father of another of the boys.  By the end of this movie, they have presented a pretty convincing case that he must be guilty.  It is hard not to be swayed.  Until you start thinking about witch hunts, that is…

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