Judge Jennifer Malkowski was going to avoid spoilers, but this tragic documentary's title dashed that hope.
"Some people say 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' I don't believe that…I just don't think that we have to live that way."—Murder victim Gloria Leathers's mother, speaking about the upcoming execution of her daughter's killer
The Execution of Wanda Jean opens with a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking scene and just keeps piling them on from there. Our first image is from police video of the day Wanda Jean Allen was arrested for shooting her lover, Gloria Leathers. We see Jean enter the room where she will be questioned, then we see the officers present tell her that Gloria has just passed away at the hospital. Distant and blurry through the lens of the mounted police camera, Jean's face registers disbelief for a long few seconds and then her frame collapses in tears. In a later interview, Jean explains simply and eloquently, "When the officer told me that Gloria died, I died right then, with her."
Opening with this moment, director Liz Garbus and subject Wanda Jean Allen immediately demonstrate their ability to make the viewer really feel for this two-time killer who is about to become the first black woman executed in America in fifty years. If Garbus wanted to make us cry in the first five minutes of her documentary, using bits of Thomas Newman's well-known score from The Shawshank Redemption was a good tactic, too. The rest of the film details Jean and her compassionate legal team's desperate attempts to get her sentence amended to life in prison. Their reasons include Jean's low IQ (a score of 69, right on the border of mild mental retardation), her childhood brain damage, and her inadequate legal counsel during her original trial. Perhaps the most compelling reason that Jean should not be executed is that Gloria's mother does not want her to be. As quoted above, she does not believe in "an eye for an eye" and has found a way to forgive her daughter's former lover and murderer. As a minister speaking on Jean's behalf argues, "If we're not killing Wanda Jean for the mother of her victim, then who are we killing her for? And if a mother can forgive someone else's child for taking the life of her child, then why can't we?"
Forgiveness is obviously a big theme in the film, as is remorse. The complicating factors of Jean's intelligence and legal representation, though important legally, pale in comparison to the emotional reality of seeing this vibrant, kind, regretful woman who is about to be put to death. Perhaps most moving and sad is the pain her family experiences as they feel Jean's life slipping away from them as her execution date approaches. Whatever one thinks about the death penalty and whether Jean deserves what is coming to her, there is clearly something unfair and tragic about the suffering her sentence causes to everyone who cares about her.
The biggest problem with The Execution of Wanda Jean is that Garbus does not allow us to get to know Jean as well as we would like. Understandably, access to her is limited by her confinement in prison, but Garbus ignores some of the most crucial and fascinating aspects of her case and her life that would make Jean a complex character we invest in rather than just someone nice who we would rather not see killed. What was her lesbian relationship with Gloria like before the day she killed her? How do she and her very religious family feel about her homosexuality? What was her childhood like? What were the circumstances of her first killing and incarceration? Instead of using her running time to explore these questions, Garbus focuses on the specifics of the various legal proceedings, making The Execution of Wanda Jean more political and less emotional (re: more effectively and subtly political) than it could have been. The film is still very upsetting and quite effective as an argument against the death penalty, but I believe the best way to make that kind of political film is to pack it with as much sheer, irrepressible humanity as you can muster. Humanity, for better or worse, is a lot harder for audiences to ignore than legal details.
The picture quality is actually quite good for a documentary recorded mostly in low-light homes and prison settings. Sound quality is less reliable, with inaudible dialogue interfering during some key emotional moments. The only extras recorded on the disc are a very brief on-screen biography of Garbus and Docurama's always-appreciated on-screen catalogue of their astounding collection of documentary films. The catalogue includes trailers for eight of the features described.
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