Stanley Fish is a law professor who writes a column for the New York Times. In his latest offering, Fish describes the revenge-vengeance film genre. According to Fish, Iam Neeson’s lines from “Taken” summarize the plotline we have come to expect from this sort of film:
“If you’re looking for ransom, I don’t have any money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.”
According to Dr. Fish, “The formula’s popularity stems from the permission it gives viewers to experience the rush violence provides without feeling guilty about it. The plot gives the hero the same permission when a wife or daughter or brother or girlfriend . . . is abducted, injured or killed.”
The revenge-vengeance only works, of course, if the carnage depicted on-screen is a response to some despicable act perpetrated by a genuinely nasty villain or, better yet, group of villains. “Once the atrocity has occurred,” Fish says, “the hero acquires an unquestioned justification for whatever he or she then does; and as the hero’s proxy, the audience enjoys the same justification for vicariously participating in murder, mayhem and mutilation. In fact, the audience is really the main character in many of these films. You can almost see the director calculating the point at which identification with the hero or heroine will be so great that the desire to see vengeance done will overwhelm any moral qualms viewers might otherwise have.”
Professor Fish isn’t taking issue with the revenge-vengeance genre; he isn’t into value judgments. He just makes his observations, gives us his top-ten revenge-vengeance films, and shuts up. But I was surprised that a law professor would pass over the obvious connection between the emotional manipulation so obvious in this genre and common prosecutorial practice. If a terrible crime has been committed, a clever prosecutor can have a jury screaming for vengeance simply by laying out the grizzly facts and declaring that somebody (the defendant, for instance) must pay. That done, it isn’t really necessary to tie the man in the dock to the crime in a convincing way. The jury is primed to convict.
Many of the wrongful convictions that have unravelled in Dallas County have followed the revenge-vengeance script.
Vengeance brings resolution. Nothing is more satisfying than seeing the bad guy pay for his misdeeds with a bullet between the eyes or a plunge into shark-infested water (every movie devises a different end for the villain, but it is always gruesome). Truth is vindicated. Justice is served.
Not so if the jury decides the evidence isn’t quite sufficient to warrant a conviction. Jurors go home thinking the guy the authorities fingered probably did the deed; but they had no choice but to cut him loose. Not a good feeling; nothing is resolved, justice not served. An obvious wrong has not been put to right. Few successful movies end this way, and small wonder–who would pay good money for a colossal disappointment?
It comes as no surprise, therefore, that juries are inclined to convict no matter how weak the evidence. This is especially true when jurors are white, the defendant is a person of color and the alleged crime is especially heinous.
Take the Curtis Flowers case, for instance. Flowers has been tried five times, accused of committing an exceptionally gruesome crime: four innocent souls (three white, one black) snuffed out by a bullet to the brain. Blood cries out for vengeance. Jurors either conclude that Curtis did the deed or they are left with an unsettling question mark. Not surprisingly, white jurors have universally voted to convict while only black jurors tend to side with Flowers. Prevailing wisdom has it that black jurors are simply protecting one of their own.
Prevailing wisdom is wrong.
The Flowers case is a textbook case of wrongful conviction unfolding in real-time; a revenge-vengeance story in the making.
The only way to counteract a powerful revenge-vengeance narrative is to re-frame the Flowers story from a civil rights perspective. That is what Friends of Justice intends to do.