A recommendation: If you’re in New York and looking to be engaged and infuriated by a movie this week, consider heading to the IFC Center and seeing Incendiary, a ridiculously timely documentary about the 2004 Texas execution of Cameron Todd Willingham -- a questionable case which has recently bubbled back up into the spotlight thanks to the (now thankfully faltering) Presidential run of Texas Governor Rick Perry. This isn’t an irate, strident movie, however; rather, Joe Bailey, Jr. and Steve Mims offer up a mostly sober, analytical work that quietly plants little time bombs in your brain. It’s the kind of film that gains power by pretending to pull its punches.
I didn’t really know anything about this case back when it was actually a case. I only learned about it from David Grann’s justly-acclaimed 2009 New Yorker article “Trial by Fire.” (And I didn’t even get to read that piece until I had to review Grann’s essay collection The Devil and Sherlock Holmes for Bookforum. Tangentially, for those interested, the story that gives Grann’s book its title is a non-fictional account of the same case that inspired the novel The Sherlockian.)
What makes Grann’s story so powerful is his sensitive depiction of what may very well have been Willingham’s monstrous predicament: that he had to stand accused of, be convicted of, and get executed for the arson murders of his three young children – all the while, presumably, he was himself grieving over those deaths. It’s the kind of dilemma I can’t even really think about for too long, for that way madness lies -- and Grann’s piece is probably the only article I’ve ever had to put down a couple of times because it was too painful to keep reading.
Incendiary could similarly mine this horrific predicament, but it does something different, and quite interesting. Instead, it launches straight into a depiction of the science involved in fire forensics. Whereas Grann relates his narrative in pretty much linear fashion, deliberately waiting to give us the reasons to doubt the initial findings of arson, Incendiary starts off with a heavy-duty scientific tear-down of the state’s case against Willingham.
Is it a brilliant stroke? Not really. It may just have been a choice to avoid replicating Grann’s piece. But it also works beautifully, for it puts the real headline up front: That the arson Willingham stood accused of very well might not have been arson. That there might, in other words, not have been a crime.
That last part is important. Perhaps even more so than the recent Troy Davis execution, the Willingham case may prove to be the wedge that begins to really force the public to think hard about the death penalty. At the time of the Davis controversy, I remember wondering why more death penalty advocates didn’t become involved in the case – for if you believe in the death penalty, then surely you must also believe that it’s even more crucial that the U.S. justice system (which also includes clemency boards, stays of execution, etc.) work pretty much flawlessly; otherwise innocent people will die. A conservative friend suggested that it wasn’t about the justice system, but about the moral clarity of the death penalty. Except that if an innocent person is being killed by the state, there’s no morality to be found there, and certainly not much clarity.
But at the same time, people could point to the murder that Davis was accused and convicted of, and ask, “What about this? Let’s not forget about what happened” – a meaningless point if the guy is innocent, but a viscerally powerful one for many who (misguidedly or not) fear a culture that privileges the rights of the accused over the rights of the victim. That’s where the Willingham case is different – because, ultimately, there might not have been a crime there to begin with. and therefore no moral imbalance for justice (and state-sanctioned murder) to right.
For better or worse, the politically engaged documentary appears to be with us to stay, and Incendiary is one of the more artful ones I’ve seen recently. In part it’s because the filmmakers don’t have a lot of footage to work with: This wasn’t one of those court cases that was broadcast for all the world to see, there weren’t people giving interviews left and right. Plus, the powers that be have a vested interest in making sure very little of what happened actually got out. Bailey and Mims manage to turn these liabilities into an artistic advantage – their film is less about the suspense of what happened and more about the light that retrospective analysis can bring. And we should be thankful for it.