Guest author Ted Schillinger is a New York film director whose work has appeared on PBS, Discovery, National Geographic Channel, and many other stations. He was a founding producer of A&E’s acclaimed American Justice series and is the director of the new film Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead .
Most of us in the film business believe that a good movie can rise to the stature of literature. No, Porky’s III doesn’t qualify (and neither does Porky’s I), but each of us quietly nurses a short list of movies that might command that artistic respect.
And all of us aspire to one day creating a film that does so.
I make documentaries. That means I’m limited to the real, and (let’s hope) the true – but it also means that my subjects are much closer to the daily human struggle to make sense of our lives, and of the perplexing world we have built. In my opinion, no subject is more perplexing than the death penalty. I spent the last two years making a new film, “Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead,” and I hope that it may contribute to a clearer national conversation about this most confounding facet of American justice.
Read about the film and watch the trailer after the jump.
Americans support the death penalty. They’ve supported it for years, usually by a factor of about two to one. A majority of Republicans, Independents and Democrats support it. Almost half of Americans believe it should be imposed more often than it is now.
Why? Are we bloodthirsty throwbacks, mouthing progressive niceties while secretly itching to throw the switch at the nearest execution chamber?
I doubt it. I am opposed to the death penalty. But I have always believed that Americans are a uniquely decent and fair-minded people. And I believe that the principal reason 36 of the United States maintain capital punishment because Americans hold to a very simple moral calculus. They believe in a thing they call “just desserts.” They believe that some crimes should not be forgiven; some killers must be killed.
Are they right? Am I wrong?
This brings us to Robert Blecker, the man from the title of my film. Two years ago, I was introduced to Blecker in his office at New York Law School in lower Manhattan. What I already knew about him was that he was an outspoken supporter of capital punishment, and one of the only ones who does so from within the national community of law schools known as “the legal academy.” Given the more merciful leanings of that world, I figured he was bound to be an iconoclast and a troublemaker. He is. What I didn’t know is that he’s charming, convincing, and as smart as anyone you’ll ever meet.
watch the trailer
Blecker, who is sixty, is as energetic as an eighteen-year-old – and as argumentative. At root, his logic in support of the death penalty is simple: some people commit such awful crimes that they deserve to die, and it’s the obligation of a truly compassionate society to kill them. Why? “They deserve it.” Do something terrible, and something equally terrible will happen to you. Not because it balances the scales perfectly, not because we’ll feel better, and not because the world will be a better place without you. Because it’s just.
Does that sound ugly? Chances are, two out of three Americans agree, whether or not they’ve ever heard of Blecker. Americans used to claim they supported the death penalty because it deterred other murders. When they began to hear that the deterrent effect could not be substantiated, they didn’t change their opinion. They changed their reasons: “They deserve it.” If, as it seemed to me, Blecker was a sort of unofficial spokesman for this American death-penalty support, then he deserved a closer look.
Blecker concedes that the death penalty as currently practiced in the U.S. is flawed, but argues that we shouldn’t get rid of it, we should get better at it. Improve it. Condemn fewer defendants. Execute only a few: the very worst, most sadistic killers.
To my extreme discomfort, I found that argument more compelling than I liked. And that was another reason to make the film. I prefer work which forces me to test my own views, rather than simply clinging to them. Still – was I capable of creating a fair profile of a man whose ideas I do not share? Could I make a film fully exploring Blecker’s approach that was not, at the end of the day, an endorsement? I tried. People who watch the film can tell me if I succeeded.
On a tour of Tennessee’s death row in 2005, Blecker met inmate Daryl K. Holton. Holton purported to support the death penalty – both in principle and with regards to his own case. He was highly intelligent, moody, and combative. He used his time in prison reading and studying the law. His mind was sharp and questing. Holton was on death row because he murdered his four children on a rainy night in 1997; at his trial, his lawyer claimed that his reasons for killing them were, in the moment he pulled the trigger, altruistic.
Blecker and Holton hit it off.
That relationship is at the center of the finished film, which opened in New York City on February 27th and will open in Washington, D.C. on Friday. It follows this unlikely pair of fellow-thinkers through a two-year friendship. Killer and scholar wrestle with the notions of justice, revenge, and punishment, before the State of Tennessee ends the conversation sharply on September 12, 2007.
I made this film in the hope that it would stir people up, as I was stirred up in making it. That, at least, is one goal of Blecker’s which I share. If we are as fair and decent a people as I believe we are, we should fearlessly examine what capital punishment means, and why we keep it on the books.
And we should fight about it honestly, and clearly, and courageously.