Some of you know that the failure of the Academy to nominate Steve James’ documentary Hoop Dreams stands as one of the greatest embarrassments in Academy history.
Some of you know James’ next project, Stevie, is one of my favorite documentaries.
So you can bet I sat up straight when this review of James’ new film At the Death House Door came in from Kenneth R. Morefield…
“When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,” Samuel Johnson once said, “it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
When a man knows he is to be lethally injected in a day, an hour, or a minute, it may not.
And when a man knows this will be the case not for himself but for the one to whom he is speaking, at who he is looking, with whom he is praying… well, in that instance it may just cloud his mind instead of clarifying it.
Ninety-five times Reverend Carroll Pickett stood and watched as another human being was strapped down and injected with a lethal solution by the state of Texas for the purpose of execution. One had killed a beloved member of Pickett’s own congregation (who worked at the prison) in a jailhouse riot. At least one was (in Pickett’s view) mentally retarded. One had suffered a stroke leaving him partially paralyzed and forcing Pickett to spoon-feed him a final meal. At least one was a woman. Fifteen times, Pickett says, he knew the one to be innocent of the crime for which he was being executed. For all ninety-five, Pickett was given the paradoxically soul-damaging double charge that he was responsible for providing spiritual service to the condemned… and for assisting the execution by getting his charge onto the gurney without a fight.
Carroll Pickett reports that at various times his mind was and has been clouded about a great many things: whether or not God is just, whether or not he or other human beings can change who and what they are, whether providing a few moments of relief for prisoners during a day of psychological and spiritual torture was accomplishing anything at all. About one thing, Pickett’s mind has become wonderfully concentrated: capital punishment is wrong.
If each member of a state’s Supreme Court were taken, independently into a room and made to witness one execution, Pickett suggested at a post-screening discussion of the film in Durham, North Carolina, capital punishment would be abolished.
Pickett has witnessed not one but ninety-five executions.
Directors Peter Gilbert and Steve James (best known for Hoop Dreams and Stevie) said in the same session that the focus of their newest documentary was originally on two reporters from The Chicago Tribune investigating the case of Carlos DeLuna, who was executed in 1989 despite reports that another man (who was known to own and brandish a knife like the one used in the murder) had confessed to committing the crime. When Gilbert and James were introduced to and interviewed Pickett and heard that he had an archive of ninety-five cassette tapes on which he had recorded his thoughts, impressions, doubts, and memories after each execution, they knew they had happened across a fresh and unique angle from which to approach an ongoing debate.
Gilbert and James are to be commended for being willing to reshape their focus on the fly–I was reminded of Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That and how documentarians face the special challenge that their subjects can often turn in unanticipated directions—though, the film’s resulting bifurcated focus may very well be its one big weakness. We are told about and see the tapes often, though we actually get very little of what’s on them. (Pickett said at the audience Q&A that their contents were nobody’s business.) We are provided with Pickett’s back-story and family history. We are methodically told about and shown the devastating psychic costs that each execution took on those who witnessed and administered it. But for all the powerful anecdotes borne of Pickett’s memories, the film builds to a climax around DeLuna’s story and ultimately uses Pickett’s story as means rather than end–to add credibility and authority to its claim that execution is wrong because the innocent are sometimes convicted rather than to tell the story of how participating in executions psychologically or spiritually scarred one man and his family.
To be fair to Gilbert and James, Pickett has become something of an activist since leaving his job, and both he and his current wife purported at the public screening to being satisfied with the film’s portrayal and emphasis. So it is not as though Gilbert and James exploited Pickett for their own purposes. (The festival audience in Durham gave Gilbert and James moderate applause; Pickett received a standing ovation.) The treatment of Carlos DeLuna’s sister in the film is more problematic, and it was instructive and refreshing to see Pickett, in the Q&A, argue that understanding and respecting where she is at in her own journey towards finding peace amidst her anger, grief, and pain may outweigh other considerations such as how effective a spokesperson for a political movement she might be if she could be convinced to be even more publicly outspoken about her brother’s case.
While the film’s final arc is both justifiable and understandable, it was my experience that the early and middle sections were far more effective than the end. The former focused on the spiritual and moral development of one man, while the latter showed the activism to which that development led. The latter is certainly understandable, but we’ve heard these arguments before; it is the journey that is unique here, and it is from the ability of Gilbert, James, and Pickett to describe that journey that the film derives the bulk of its emotional and spiritual weight. It may also be the case that the emotional tenors of the two parts are not quite in harmony. DeLuna’s arc focuses on (understandable) anger and outrage; Pickett’s parts of the narrative are imbued with as much sadness as anger, and it’s evident that Pickett has made his peace with life’s pains (and his role in contributing to them) in a way that not everyone involved in the DeLuna arc has. This is not a moral judgment about the film’s participants, simply an observation about how and why the parts of the film don’t always harmonize.
For me, then, the heart of the film might very well have been a conversation between Pickett and his family in which, after many years of silently internalizing and independently grappling with what he did for a living, they begin to open up to one another about their experiences and emotions. After bandying about and replying to several political questions, such as about deterrence and vengeance, Pickett says that finally (or “in the end” or words to that effect) there is the moral question of execution. Is it right?
There would have been a time in my life where I thought it strange that a reverend ended with or arrived at the moral question rather than starting with it. As I’ve grown older and understood a tiny bit more about moral and spiritual development, I’ve come to (think I) see that spiritual knowledge is not something we attain (or are given) whole at the point of conversion or after the affirmation of some intellectual or theological propositions. God reveals Himself–and through knowledge of Him, of all truth–fully, but as we develop we see and understand what has been revealed to us more fully, more clearly. (Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaches eloquently about the blind man to whom Jesus gave sight in stages as being a physical, living parable of this spiritual truth.) Just as believing in God and knowing God are two different things, so too are believing something is wrong (or right) and knowing it. The former can (and does) come through intellectual inquiry and reason. The latter certainly can and should be built on a foundation of the former, but it comes also of experiencing truth first-hand. I can’t help but wonder if that distinction, never made overtly, was what caused Pickett to say “it is wrong” only as a conclusion and not as a proposition. There had been times in his life when he thought or believed (perhaps even could argue) that the death penalty was just, and fair, and right. The culmination or product of his experiences was not a refuting argument but a contradicting knowledge.
The highest truths, Emerson opined, remain unsaid and perhaps cannot be said, because words are the instruments of belief and argument and those highest truths are intuited, experienced, and known directly. Or, if you prefer, another wise man said that though the words of the wise were like goads, of the making of many books there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:11-12, paraphrased). In a scene towards the end of At the Death House Door, Carroll Pickett visits a cemetery and surveys the tombstones of prisoners he has buried. Those marked with an ‚Äòx’ indicate they mark the graves of ones who were executed. It is in Pickett’s face, and posture, as much as in his words, that his experience is communicated in part to us. It is in the things themselves, the rows of crosses marking the graves of those who took life and those who had life taken from them that we are confronted not only with the consequences of our policy decisions but with the ultimate end of each of our lives.
When a man knows he is to die, but he knows not when, it may concentrate his soul as well as his mind. If that is so, Carroll Pickett’s soul has been concentrated like few others. The lessons he has learned and the truths he has intuited just might be worth hearing.
Morefield’s Grade: A-
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Assistant Professor of English at Campbell University in Buies Creek, NC.