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Pretty bad start, adumbrating a pretty routine story. A black janitor is railroaded by a racist judge and jury, convicted of the rape and murder of a sixteen-year-old white virgin (blonde), and winds up on death row. All the whites are either racist or stupid and ineffective. The African-American community is wounded, and filled with bodacious wrath. Looks like you can only depend on your own people. The separatism hangs in the air like fog. Should we give five Southern states to African-Americans so they can secede and form their own country? How about giving California to the Asians, New Mexico to the Hispanics, Minnesota to the Scandinavians, and -- well, you get the dismal picture.
But it didn't turn out that way. The first twenty minutes practically announces the arrival of a formula white-guilt, black-rage movie and then delivers something a little better than that. Nobody in Conroe, Texas, wants to be thought of a a you-know-what lover but some of the white folks turn out to be decent, and with a little prodding and a few betrayals by friends, they finally come forward and Clarence Brandley gets out of death row, having been awarded a new trial 5 days before his execution.
The story isn't badly done. Direction is competent and the acting from some of the principals is really quite good. Take Courtney B. Vance as Clarence Bradley. He gives us a picture of thorough self-pitying defeat, a burden slightly lifted upon his release from prison. And he's convincing too. He's so into his character that if we hand't seen him in other roles that require him to be smoothly superior we might think that this is all he's capable of. His chief African-American supporter and manager is good too. He sees things almost exclusively through the prism of race. He's about half right when, at the end, he argues that there are still fifteen black people on death row in Texas and nobody knows how many of THEM are innocent too. I said he's about half right because there have been a number of well-publicized cases over the last twenty years or so in which white men on death row have been exonerated too. The state seems to be pretty comfortable with plausible executions. Surprisingly good performances are given by supporting players, whose names I get mixed up. One is a long-haired greasy guy with a conscience who finally comes around to telling the truth on the stand, although he's been beaten up for even thinking about it. Another is given by one of the apparent murderers, a strangely asymetrical character who keeps claiming he "can't remember" whether he raped and murdered the girl or not, until the DA straightens him out on what he remembers. For the most part these are fairly convincing portrayals of small-town characters with all their warts and humanities.
I had a bit of trouble with Ron White as the guy who has been a minister but now devotes his time, gratis, to helping people who have fallen through the cracks in the justice system. First of all, he looks so much like Patrick Swayze that if he really WERE a Texan instead of a Canadian, I'd start wondering about inbreeding down there. But mostly I had trouble because this evidently well-intentioned humanitarian casually says, "Although I'm no longer a minister I sometimes still put on the collar. It can be very effective in getting people to talk." And it IS effective. It's instrumental in getting the greasy cowboy in his delapidated, garbage-strewn mobile home to admit that he was a witness to the rape. The erstwhile reverend keeps saying things like, "Get it off your conscience." And, "You can trust me. I'm your friend." Isn't there any law against impersonating a minister, priest, rabbi, or sensai? Doesn't it establish a phony atmosphere in which the one being interrogated believes he has some sort of privileged communication when in fact he's just answering questions asked by an interested party?
Another difficulty is that, if the movie starts off invoking self-righteous anger, it ends the same way, with a couple of photos from the 1920s and 1930s of lynched black men and the statement that "we're still fighting the same war" that Clarence Brandley fought. No we're not. In the 1920s and 1930s Clarence Brandley would have gone to the chair, if he made it that far, in Conroe, Texas. The system may still be corrupt and racist but it's not the same system that existed back then, becuse, in this case at least, it wound up with Clarence and some of his (white) supporters suffering, not with Clarence dying. But the dreary and expectable final message shouldn't overshadow the fact that this is not a bad movie. The sort of thing that TV can do so well when it tries to.
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