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November 23, 2012

"Muted Message: Capital Punishment in the Hollywood Cinema"

The title of this post is the title of this new piece in SSRN by David Ray Papke; it provides for a good holiday read before heading out for a holiday movie or while trying to avoid black friday crowds.  Here is the abstract:
Contemporary Hollywood films seem at first glance to be opposed to capital punishment. However, this article’s consideration of five surprisingly similar films (Dead Man Walking, The Chamber, Last Dance, True Crime, and The Life of David Gale) finds they do not truly and consistently condemn capital punishment.  Instead of suggesting that the practice of capital punishment is fundamentally immoral and should in general be ended, the films champion only worthy individuals on death row and delight primarily in the personal growth of other characters who attempt to aid the condemned.  In the end, Hollywood offers only a muted message regarding the on-going use of capital punishment.

November 23, 2012 at 11:48 AM | Permalink


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This is a peach: "Instead of suggesting that the practice of capital punishment is fundamentally immoral and should in general be ended, the films champion only worthy individuals on death row and delight primarily in the personal growth of other characters who attempt to aid the condemned."

How do you get to "worthy" by committing capital murder (or murders)? Oh, let me guess. You write children's books (how charming) or paint (like John Wayne Gacy -- a "worthy" fellow if ever there was one). Not for nothing are these movies works of fiction.

And could we see something about the "personal growth" of the kids whose parents got murdered and then had to grow up and make their way without their love, support and reassurance?

Has a single film ever come out of Hollywood showing capital punishment as something the prisoner fully earned and justly received?

Posted by: Bill Otis | Nov 23, 2012 6:20:04 PM

Hollywood certainly favors the death penalty dealt on the spot, at the very scene of the crime, by its hero to its villain. The death penalty often uses falling onto and having torso impaled on a spike or other protuberance.

This is where I agree with liberal Hollywood. There should be enacted a statute requiring that all law abiding citizens carry gun, and that all make some attempt to blast the bad guy at the scene. The police should then issue $100 tickets to any citizen failing to do so.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 23, 2012 9:46:45 PM

"Worthy" doesn't mean the person is innocent of the crime or is given some undeserved sentence. I think of Red in Shawshank Redemption. In prison for decades for a being a bad man (by his own statement), accepting the fact and not acting like an animal (like the rapists or crooked officials) while inside. Thus, various guards and prison personnel can cite "worthy" inmates, even on death row.

"The Executioner’s Song" is about someone who WANTS to be executed. I haven't seen it, but one summary notes it expresses the "anguish surrounding the murders he committed" and wanting to cut to the chase sounds like something "worthy" in the mind of some.

It makes sense for dramatic purposes to not make the person in prison totally without sympathy. I note the book "Dead Man Walking" notes the subject makes a concerted effort to work with the family of the victims too. I'm inclined to agree with SC too -- Hollywood repeatedly supports killing criminals without trial. It's the easy way out in film after film. I think this sort of balances out its failure to support the death penalty for those who actually survive to get it.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 24, 2012 9:52:04 AM

I've long thought that "Dead Man Walking" was an odd film because it's seemingly meant to be against the death penalty but ends up being one of the strongest pro-death-penalty statements in cinematic history. The film takes no easy outs: Sean Penn's character is guilty as sin, he isn't Hollywood's usual poor black guy minding his own business who got set up by racist cops. Indeed, as Penn's character is being executed we get to see exactly what he had done to end up on the gurney and realize that he absolutely deserves his punishment.

Posted by: alpino | Nov 25, 2012 4:32:05 AM

I wouldn't call the film DMW "odd" for honestly showing that the subject counsels even those who have committed heinous crimes & are not as sympathetic as some stereotypical defendant.

Likewise, people STILL believe he does not "absolutely deserve" the punishment (e.g., since the punishment itself is wrong for such and such a reason) or we can't trust the state with such power even if (like various things) in some number of cases (which we cannot guarantee will always exist) it would be okay.

It is only "odd" if we just view things using stereotypes. So, it would be "odd," guess, for some film to be against abortion, even if the person is one of the most sympathetic cases out there, such as someone raped. Now many if not most would think the person should have the right to choose an abortion. But, of course, pre-Roe, she would not legally have a right to one even there in various places, including Texas. And, if someone is firmly against the taking of human life via abortion, hard cases count too.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 26, 2012 3:37:28 PM

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