The West Memphis Three Industry

I wrote last week when they were released that while the release of the three men from West Memphis who were jailed for allegedly murdering three eight-year-olds in a Satanic ritual was good for them, it wasn’t a sign that the American justice system works — in fact, precisely the opposite. It would be good if the sudden spate of projects centered around those three men keeps that in mind.

Just as the death of Osama bin Laden spotlighted extant film projects and inspired several more, a West Memphis Three cottage industry is suddenly highly visible. Atom Egoyan is directing a feature film about the case, which, much like Kathryn Bigelow’s Kill Bin Laden, will have an updated ending. HBO is premiering a third documentary about the case in September, and Sheila Nevins, who heads the documentary division at HBO (which, by the way, should get credit for an astonishingly good slate of movies this summer) has said she could see a fourth movie because “If you’re guilty, how can you be innocent? Something’s wrong with the system. They have to be free because they are innocent. We have to prove that, and I don’t know how we do that. We’ll have to really work on that.”

I really, profoundly hope that if folks are going to turn the West Memphis Three into the focal point for a wide range of stories about criminal justice, that they temper the triumph of their release of a clear-eyed look at what it took to make it happen, and how extraordinarily rare it is. These absolutely have to be systemic stories rather than individual ones. And it would be much more useful to leverage the attention the West Memphis Three got to build interest in other cases, and in broad-based reforms. Winning this case and building a just, workable criminal justice system are not the same things, but it’ll be very, very easy for movies to leave viewers with that impression if they aren’t careful.