Appellate Judge Jennifer Malkowski really wants there to be a tomorrow; she's planning to go mini-golfing.
"A personal look at the death penalty in America."
No Tomorrow is basically a talking head political documentary, filled with interviews in which people speak convincingly against the death penalty. Though that might sound tedious, in addition to the power of the interviews, No Tomorrow has an interesting twist that makes it well worth a viewing.
Facts of the Case
Directors Roger Weisberg and Vanessa Roth made a documentary, Aging Out, in 2004 about young people transitioning out of the foster care system into living on their own. One of their subjects, L.A. teen Risa Bejarano, had done what few foster care kids are able to: she graduated high school and went on to an excellent university with multiple scholarships. Ultimately, Risa wasn't able to keep up with the pressure of her courses and independent lifestyle, succumbing to drug use and eventually getting into a dangerous situation that would end her life. Risa was murdered, allegedly by gang member Juan Jose Chavez, who thought she would go to the police with information about (other) murders he had committed.
Weisberg and Roth then found themselves in a morally difficult position: the prosecutor in Chavez's case made significant use of Aging Out, showing it to the jury to try to convince them that Chavez deserved the death penalty for killing such a wonderful person. (Presumably) opposed to the death penalty and uncomfortable with their film being used to pursue it for Chavez, Weisberg and Roth decided to make No Tomorrow about the situation, using footage from the trial (watch for a judge you might recognize) and lots of interviews with folks ranging from Risa's foster mother to lawyers weighing in on the death penalty debate.
A few years ago, I reviewed another political documentary about the death penalty for DVD Verdict, The Execution of Wanda Jean. This film asked you to think about the death penalty through a very specific lens. It said, here is a human being. She seems like a warm and kind person who has had a difficult life and truly regrets the murder she committed; you probably like her as you get to know her through the film. Even the mother of her victim has forgiven her and doesn't want her to be executed. So, do you want her to be executed? For all but the most staunch eye-for-an-eye types, the answer is probably no by the end of Wanda Jean, and the directors hope you will take that "no" and extend it into a general opposition to the death penalty.
The directors of No Tomorrow take on a much tougher challenge. Juan Jose Chavez is no Wanda Jean, as the film offers no opportunities to really get to know him (he isn't interviewed, but only seen in court) and his trial gives us the sense that he is decidedly not remorseful. The warm and kind person here is his alleged victim, Risa, whom we get to know intimately and whose bullet-riddled body we see in photos from the morgue. It is to Weisberg and Roth's credit that they rise to the challenge this case presents and manage to craft a powerful anti-death-penalty film from it. While they may not be able to convince us that Chavez is a good person, they mount a persuasive case that he failed to become one in large part due to insufficient support from the very government that now wants to execute him. They also argue, effectively, that life in prison is a more appropriate punishment even for a "bad person." The icing on this rhetorical cake is provided by some infuriating statistics at the film's end about how hopelessly mired in a backlog of executions the state of California is, and about the insane taxpayer expense of housing a prisoner on death row rather than in a regular prison.
A wonderful collection of interviewees deserve much of the credit for this success, collectively laying out the case against the death penalty from many perspectives—legal, moral, financial—always with a strong sense of the way social inequalities impact who ends up on death row as much as individual guilt. As lawyer Aundre Herron puts it, "Those with capital don't get punished. The death penalty is a punishment that is reserved for the most disenfranchised, the most dispossessed, the most disadvantaged, the most damaged. People are groomed for death row like the Kennedys are groomed for congress."
Docurama puts out a nice DVD edition of the film. Its look and sound are certainly not high-budget, but little flash is needed to make this kind of interview-heavy issue documentary. There's your basic trailer and filmmaker bio on the disc, but the main extra is a 30-minute excerpt from Aging Out that shows us the portion of the film about Risa. It's painful to watch, given our knowledge of how things turned out, but is a great supplement to No Tomorrow. In fact, I would recommend starting with the Aging Out excerpt and then watching the full No Tomorrow feature.
Near the end of their film, when the directors' interviewees are discussing the huge financial cost of the death penalty to the government, one asks us to think of another possibility: "Imagine a system that took the hundreds of millions of dollars we're spending on the death penalty and instead put that into juvenile justice, instead took a kid at the first sign of trouble…and got him into a world of opportunity, a world of education, a world of rehabilitation, who transformed his life at that tender age." That's a system you may yearn for—maybe even fight for—when you finish No Tomorrow.
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