Dead Man Walking & its Complex Politics (week 8)

ch 4
Channel 4 Prison Night

On the Prison Night special that aired on channel 4 last week, prisoners voted for their favourite prison movie and questioned how realistic each of them were. While it came as no surprise that The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile took the top two spots, I did not expect Dead Man Walking to secure third place (despite personally being a fan of the film). This was reflected in the way the group today weren’t sure what to make of the movie.

HP bookI know my university class are always fascinated by the “reality” behind Dead Man Walking. We read excerpts from Helen Prejean’s book upon which the movie is based; her writing is powerful and emotive. Yet as I detailed in a piece written recently for The Conversation, prison movies are not necessarily popular because of their adherence to reality. If there were, why did Shawshank and Green Mile rate so highly? As I have learnt from the group – not just this week but in previous weeks – audiences exalt the classic prison-hero “getting one over on the system”.

Yet this does not happen so explicitly in Dead Man Walking. The lead character, Matthew Poncelet, does not conduct a

DEAD MAN WALKING, Sean Penn, 1995, (c) Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection
DEAD MAN WALKING, 1995, (c) Gramercy Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection

breathtaking escape or play illegal music over the prison tannoy. Moreover the ending of the film is unusually complex. On one hand the state retains ultimate control of the prisoner by enforcing his execution in the closing minutes. The death penalty does not acknowledge that salvation is possible. On the other, Poncelet’s last-minute confession of his crimes suggests he has achieved redemption, hence is he defying the state in some way? Perhaps the state can be read as callous for pursuing the execution of a man who has accepted individual responsibility for his actions.

We considered that Dead Man Walking may have alternatively won popularity on Prison Night because of its unique number of viewpoints. A number of death row movies unashamedly wear their anti-death penalty politics on their sleeve (The Green Mile, david gThe Life of David Gale etc). Anyone who is familiar with Tim Robbins (the director of Dead Man Walking) and his then wife Susan Sarandon (Prejean) and actor Sean Penn (Poncelet), will be aware of their liberal reputations. Yet Dead Man Walking complicates matters by offering not just the perspectives of Poncelet and Prejean, but the victims’ families and even the victims themselves. One participant in the group today had been a victim as well as an offender, so sympathised that the film proffered these varying viewpoints.

When I teach Dead Man Walking in the university classroom, I usually divide students into two groups and prompt a competitive debate for / against the use of the death penalty. The class regularly follows the same pattern whereby students in the “pro” group groan and grumble, yet win the contest. While of course this may be linked to the superior debating skills of the students coincidentally put in that group each year, it serves to show that there are still some influential arguments that reign in the US in favour of death sentences. Sadly our group today had slightly depleted attendance. Had we had more participants, I would perhaps have conducted a similar debate. I am not concerned with people’s individual beliefs concerning such punishments, but rather am interested in why they may think the US may support it so vigorously when the UK doesn’t.

death p
The Economist, 2012

Indeed, we revealed to the group that in 1966, 42% of Americans supported the death penalty in a poll. By 1994, this statistic had risen to 80% (in line with the right-wing rhetoric of the War on Drugs) and today this has dropped to 61%.[i] The group were not particularly surprised by these statistics, perhaps in part because we had earlier referenced the “conservative state of Texas” as a focal point for   discussing the death penalty. When we asked what may be the ultimate premise behind the death penalty, we were informed that “it is to teach people a lesson, to give an example to the outside”; ironic given US murder rates show no signs of abating.

oj sTo close the discussion, we flagged the famous quote from Dead Man Walking that “aint nobody on death row with money”. The group believed that “no rich people are on death row because they can afford a lawyer”. Anyone who needs legal aid and a public defendant is “going straight to jail!” We digressed to celebrity trials such as that of Michael Jackson; conspiracy theories suggest his guilt was ignored at the expense of lucratively compensating his accusers. Similarly, OJ Simpson ended up going to jail years after his original trial “once he had lost all his money”. The group agreed that class underpins imprisonment in the UK too, “especially now benefits and soup kitchens are being cut”.

In the creative writing section, we were told to imagine someone close to us was on death row and that we needed to compose a letter to the judge asking them to spare their life.


[i] Andrew Duggan, “Solid Majority Continue to Support Death Penalty,” Gallup Poll, 15 October 2015, [accessed 15 November 2015].


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