Friday, September 20, 2013

Top 10 Films About the Wrongfully Convicted

What’s great about many of the films on this list is that they actually changed things. Because of the determination of a few filmmakers, people’s lives were irrevocably changed for the better. And if the movies themselves didn’t help free people in prison, then they do a damn good job of depicting their fight for freedom.

For the sake of brevity, I’m limiting this list to the wrongfully convicted who served time in prison. Village scandal movies like The Hunt, or prisoner-on-the-run flicks like The Fugitive were not considered.

10. After Innocence (2005)
“In the past 10 years, whenever I go apply for a job, it says, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ it doesn’t say, ‘If you ever been wrongfully accused of a crime.’”

That quote, spoken early in After Innocence by one of its subjects, says everything you need to know about this documentary, which hears the stories of many men who have been exonerated from death row due to DNA evidence.

9. The Trials of Darryl Hunt (2006)
Darryl Hunt was 19 when he was convicted of the rape and murder of a young, white newspaper editor, and it took him just as many years to prove his innocence. One of the final scenes of this film, in which Darryl literally faces the victim’s mother (who still believes Darryl is guilty) is utterly devastating.

8. Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)
One thing that separates Murder on a Sunday Morning from the other films on this list is that it was filmed as the case was actually happening.

Shortly after 15-year-old Brenton Butler was charged with killing a woman, French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was given unprecedented access to Butler’s legal team, and followed them as they tried to proclaim Butler’s innocence in court. Murder on a Sunday Morning is a gritty, unique look at a wrongful conviction, and justly won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.

7. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)
“I don’t think you ought to be doing this to yourself, Andy. This is just shitty pipedreams. I mean, Mexico is way the hell down there and you’re in here, and that’s the way it is.”

“Yeah, right. That’s the way it is. It’s down there and I’m in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.”

That’s goddamn right.

6. Paradise Lost Films (1996, 2000, 2011)
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5. West of Memphis (2012)
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost documentaries are raw and important. Three films spread over 15 years that helped the West Memphis Three case gain national attention and support. Without those films, I’m certain that wrongly convicted child murderers Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin would still be in prison, if not dead by execution. Amy Berg’s West of Memphis is far more polished than the Paradise Lost documentaries, mainly because it had the financial weight of Peter Jackson behind it. West of Memphis pushes the story even further, nearly indicting a male relative of one of the murdered boys as the real killer.  I love all of these films, but if forced to choose, would give a slight edge to West of Memphis as the strongest among them.

4. The Central Park Five (2012)
There’s a scene in the breathtaking documentary, The Central Park Five, that speaks of the lasting horror of a prison sentence. It took several years for five black men to be found innocent of a vicious gang rape they never committed. Once freed, one of the men is interviewed at his home and gives a stoic, horrifying description of life on the outside. He notes how he rarely leaves his small room, because it is the size of a prison cell, which comforts him. He says when he’s talking to a person at a social gathering, he always backs into a corner and constantly scans the room, a habit picked up in the prison yard.

We like to think that once an innocent man is released from prison, he holds his arms out wide and screams praises of victory. The Central Park Five shows something different. It shows that, while free, nothing can stop you from backing yourself into a corner.

3. In the Name of the Father (1993)
Gerry Conlon was one of four people wrongly convicted of carrying out IRA orders and bombing two pubs in Guildford, England. Tortured into a conviction, Gerry spent several years in prison before finally being released. I won’t describe what happened while he was inside, but know that In the Name of the Father is my favorite film by the great Jim Sheridan, and contains nearly my favorite Daniel Day-Lewis performance. This one rocks me to the core every time I watch it.

2. The Hurricane (1999)
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.

I’ve never understood why Norman Jewison’s flawless bio drama didn’t receive more acclaim. I think it’s a perfect film detailing the power of the fight. It also contains nearly the best performance Denzel Washington has ever given.

1. The Thin Blue Line (1988)
I discuss Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line frequently on this blog, most recently when I listed it as my second favorite documentary of all time. I talk about it for a few reasons: one, it’s a damn fine film, and two, it deserves a wider audience. This is the film that got a man released from death row. The conviction of Morris’ journalistic take on the case of a slain police officer actually saved a man’s life. If that doesn’t speak to the power of cinema, then I certainly don’t know what does.

41 comments:

  1. Great list and I too, would put The Thin Blue Line at the top w/ The Hurricane at #2. #3 might go to the Paradise Lost trilogy as I haven't seen West of Memphis while I've also seen The Shawshank Redemption and some of In the Name of the Father. The rest I haven't seen but I'm willing to check out if it comes across my way.

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    1. Thanks. Glad you dig the picks. I went back and rewatched all of In the Name of the Father for this post. Love that film.

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    2. West of Memphis is my favorite of the 4 about the child killings. Excellent documentary. I just watched The Thin Blue Line this week (twice!) and loved it. I now think Making a Murderer should be at the top of any list on this subject.

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    3. Make a Murderer would definitely be here if I made the list today, for sure.

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  2. I haven't seen quite a few titles on this list(Actually, I have never even heard #10, #9 and #8 before but that's what you are for. :)) but I wholeheartedly approve of The Thin Blue Line and for the exact same reason. It actually changed something, it saved someone;s life. That is Incredible!!

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    1. Isn't it?! Morris is a damn dedicated man. Love that guy. Numbers 10-8 are three very good films. All pretty short too.

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  3. I haven't seen enough of these to make a judgment, but I absolutely agree with No. 1. It beautifully laid the groundwork for what can be done with that type of story on film. So many documentarians have cribbed their style from Errol Morris (with inconsistent results, unfortunately; there's only one Morris).

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    1. YES! I completely agree with you: so many documentarians have tried to recreate Morris' style and tone. Never works. Only one Morris indeed.

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  4. Awesome list, Alex! I need to see more of these films, as the few I've seen on this list are life-changing.

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    1. Thanks! The Thin Blue Line is especially important.

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  5. Great list! I'm glad you included Paradise Losts/West of Memphis on here. It breaks my heart to know that whoever killed those three boys is still out there. Though I find it a little impossible to have a good discussion about those films online because there's always one person that thinks it's all bullshit and tells you that you "ignore facts" instead of just politely disagreeing. Ugh.

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    1. Thanks! Yeah, I imagine people are libel to get heated about the West Memphis Three case. But wait, do those people try to convince you that the three innocent guys ACTUALLY did it? Jesus.

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  6. I might change the order here, but I can't think of a film I'd add. Fantastic list!

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  7. Nice list. A number of titles on here I haven't seen (been meaning to check out Central Park Five for a while now). Given the universal love for Shawshank I was surprised to see it so low. Not arguing with your top choice, just making an observation.

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    1. Shawshank is a solid film, no doubt. But for this specific category, I definitely think the films above it are more effective. The Central Park Five is crazy good.

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  8. Great list! The Thin Blue Line and After Innocence sound fascinating. I like The Shawshank Redemption, and I love In the Name of the Father. What a powerful movie.

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    1. Thanks! You'd really appreciate The Thin Blue Line. It's a remarkable film.

      Ah, In the Name of the Father... perfect.

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  9. I'd have Shawshank as my number one for fictional, and I'd definitely have The Thin Blue Line as number one for documentary. Awesome list!

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    1. Thanks man. TTBL is incredible, isn't it? Morris is a genius.

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  10. I've only seen Th Thin Blue Line and Paradise Lost 1 and 2 of the non-fiction ones on this list. Shawshank and In the Name of the Father are brilliant, brilliant films!

    Must try and catch The Central Park Five and the last three on your list sometime as well as finishing the Paradise Lost trilogy!

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    1. The Central Park Five really astounded me. There's an extended scene of the original interrogation tape of one of the kids, and it is devastating.

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  11. Excellent post, that scene from Shawshank in the rain is such an uplifting moment.

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    1. Thanks man. That is a great moment, no doubt.

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  12. I think you're missing the Leslie Nielsen classic, "Wrongfully Accused"

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    1. Had he spent the majority of the film inside, I definitely would've included it.

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  13. Great list. I've seen a few but I need to check out more. Have you seen The Staircase? Thoughts? Besides being incredibly fascinating I've also found it to be a really divisive doc.

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    1. Thanks so much! I haven't seen The Staircase but whoa... sounds intense. 360 minutes is no joke either. But I'll have to hunt that one down soon.

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  14. Great stuff. If only I'd seen more of these... Apart from Shawshank and In the Name of the Father, I'm completely blind on these. Though, several are already on my watchlist, so I'll get to them eventually.

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    1. I think you'd really appreciate The Central Park Five. Just... wow.

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  15. The Last Word johnny frank garret is the most powerful innocence movie ever

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    1. Wow, sounds really compelling. I'll check it out soon. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  16. what about the conviction(2010)??? the most one person has lost due to wrongful conviction was "Rubin Carter"( the hurricane ) who didn't become the world champion and nearly spent almost 20 years in prison(the only reason being he was an african american) for a crime which he didn't commit.

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    1. Conviction didn't really work for me. I liked Rockwell in it, but that's about it. And yeah, Rubin Carter went through utter hell before he was free.

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  17. Shame about the in prison technicality- Would have liked to hear more about The Wrong Man. One of his best, methinks.

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    1. I wrote about that one in my Hitchcock Directors post if you're interested. Love that movie. A great, yet overlooked, Hitchcock film.
      http://www.andsoitbeginsfilms.com/2015/05/the-directors-alfred-hitchcock.html

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    2. Shit! How did I miss that? Thanks

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  18. "The Last Word" should have been in this list.

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