Criminals In Pop Culture And Criminal Justice Reform

I’m writing this post as a reminder that the Pop Culture and the Death Penalty Project starts on Wednesday, so be ready to get your Richard Wright on, but also because I wanted to ask a more general question before we begin. To what extent are criminals’ experiences effective arguments for criminal justice reform in popular culture? Of course there really aren’t a lot of ways to argue criminal justice reform other than to show the experiences of people going through the system. But an argument that depicts the innocent and relies strictly on the idea that bad things might happen to good people leaves open the idea that it’s just fine to do bad things to bad people.

This was something that struck me while I was watching Mesrine: Killer Instinct last weekend. The movie is wildly entertaining: Vincent Cassel’s always a pleasure to watch, but he’s particularly good as an irrepressible Frenchman whose experience executing Algerian terror suspects during his country’s war there becomes something of an excuse for him. He’s the kind of guy who cusses out his father for getting him a decent job, calling him subservient and unmanly. And when he’s run out of France (and runs, rather dramatically, out on his gorgeous Spanish wife, into whose mouth he appears to like sticking a gun to get her to behave), he lands in Quebec where he hooks up with independence-minded terrorists while working construction; kidnaps a billionaire; and eventually gets extradited back to Canada while joyriding through America. In other words, it’s entirely possible to be entertained by him, but impossible to think he’s a good person. And yet the movie is very good at putting us in his position when he’s put in solitary, denied his clothes, and sprayed with a firehose. He doesn’t deserve it, but those actions are more an illustration of the rigidity and arrogance of the director of the infamous prison where Mesrine’s being held. And when he escapes, flees, and returns for his fellow prisoners, there’s a nutty bravado not just to that, but to the fact that his experiences there became a spur for changes at the prison. But instead of being a systematic argument for prison reform, the fact that the prison was changed is part of Mesrine’s legend, rebounding to the advantage of a sexy narrative rather than a fun one. He can be that bad, a veritable model for people getting what they deserve, and get people to consider treating prisoners differently.

It reminded me a bit of the sequence in Public Enemies, when a bunch of angry, raw FBI recruits, having snagged John Dillinger’s girlfriend Billie, handcuff her to a chair, slap her around, and keep her there until she wets herself. Billie is less obviously, ridiculously guilty than Mesrine, but she is dating and providing shelter to a known criminal. But women are subject to a multi-directional bind when it comes to criminality: crimes against women, particularly if they’re sexual, are treated as if they’re “especially heinous,” in the parlance of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but women who commit serious crimes are often seen as either weak and manipulated or unsexed. In this case, Billie’s relatively low level of culpability, her beauty, her fragility, and the fact that she’s been forced into a position that violates her decorum, all suggest that the hunt for Dillinger has rotted something in the FBI agents chasing him. But it raises the issue that if she’d been more involved, or had she been a man, it might have been to permissible to push her as hard, or harder.

If we’re talking about crime and punishment, we’re never going to get away from the fact that we’re talking about the most useful way to deal with people who aren’t very sympathetic protagonists. I don’t know how to get away from this problem. But stories that manage to illuminate the systems where they take place may be more effective advocates for reform than stories that are just about one person’s mystique.