Just a reminder, for next week, we’ll be watching Oz Season 2, Episode 3; Season 3, Episode 7; Season 4, Episode 4. The show is available through HBO GO.
So it turns out that Last Dance is about a party boy who finds his purpose working in the appeals office for a Southern state government, falls in love with a murderer played by Sharon Stone, and after she’s executed, takes an Annie Lennox-scored trip to the Taj Mahal in her memory and as a way to express that he’s finally really, seriously at peace with himself. In other words, it’s a pretty terrible movie, chock-full of sassy black death row inmates who call Stone’s sweet former-addict killer “girl” a lot, a weak-sauce and sentimental discussion of racial and economic disparities in the death penalty, and a lot of thick-accented callous Southern stereotypes. But it does a couple of things that I think are interesting, even if I don’t think it does them particularly well.
First is the way it addresses lingering discomfort with executing women. Sam, the head of the appeals office, treats feminism as if it’s a joke that women have played on themselves, suggesting that executions of women are up because of the “Women’s lobby. They all want equal treatment in the eyes of the law.” Rick, the young attorney who’s come to work for Sam while he figures out what he wants to do with his life, expresses bewilderment that a woman could commit the crime Cindy’s guilty of, bludgeoning two wealthy young people to death — Sam tells him, “Most of the time when a woman kills, it’s a crime of passion.” Later, the pompous, tough-on-crime governor informs Rick that “Her sex made no difference to her victims. It makes no difference to us under our legal system.” These are platitudes and stereotypes, but there’s a real issue here about how gender plays into our expectations about violent behavior, and our willingness to exert violence against women in the name of the state. If crimes against women, particularly white women, inspire moral outrage, violent crimes committed by women also challenge our conceptions of gendered behavior.
Second, there’s the question of how race and class interact in the death penalty, which is mostly addressed when Rick, told to stay away from Cindy’s case, visits a black inmate who’s earned a law degree and written a best-seller about his moral evolution on death row. He predicts, accurately as it turns out, that the narrative of his transformation will earn him a reprieve that Cindy is denied. “What’s the smart money saying? Who’s going to live, me or the white girl?” he asks Rick. “They will be diminished by my death because I represent everything they love and admire. How are they going to kill a man who’s been on the New York Times best-seller list?” I don’t know that it’s true that politicians are less afraid to appear classist than they are to appear racist, especially when it comes to black men and crime, but against, it’s an interesting proposition, one the movie floats and lets gets away before it can explore it further.
And the movie has a weird tendency to treat Cindy like a childlike victim — or, as Rick tells the governor, “We’re not setting an example here. We never gave her a chance to became like us. We’ve become like her.” It’s not that death row inmates can’t do cross-stitch, or be good to each other, or take pleasure in a correspondence course where “Every week they give you something new to draw. This week it’s castles,” as Cindy tells Rick. “Take me a while. Do you think you could get me a picture of the Taj Mahal?” Maybe during her incarceration, Cindy became the kind of person who Rick could fall in love with, but there’s more than a whiff of a creepy, paternalistic sexual vibe in his interactions with her, as he shops for the dress she’ll be executed in, as he cradles her in her cell before her execution. The movie suggests that she’s spiritually pure even though she committed a terrible crime, and it never bothers to bridge the gap between who she was and who she’ll become.
One thing I think it does get right, though, is the ridiculousness and cruelty of our last-minute appeals process. I wrote that the prospect of Troy Davis spending the hours leading up to his execution strapped to a gurney, some of it with a needle in his arm, was almost unbearable to contemplate. And when Cindy’s execution is temporarily stayed three minutes before it’s supposed to be carried out, she breaks down, shrieking wildly, clawing at her guards. The very process of considering whether her life should be saved has robbed her of the work she put into meeting her death calmly and with dignity. If death penalty advocates want to make the process as humane and as decent as it can possibly be, we really need to find a way to conduct a comprehensive review of all possible flaws in a case before we begin the work of death.