What A Murder Professor Learned From Watching Every Execution Scene In American Film


There are people who just love watching the fight scenes in movies. There are people who only want to see the kisses, or the makeover montages, or the meet-cutes. And then there is Austin Sarat, who decided to investigate the portrayal of capital punishment in cinema. Which is to say: to watch all of the execution scenes in twentieth century American film.

Sarat, Associate Dean of the Faculty and William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence & Political Science at Amherst College, has been studying capital punishment for years. He teaches a seminar at Amherst called “Murder” which, when it was first introduced in 1995, was the most popular course in the school’s history. (One-fifth of the student body enrolled.) His most recent study, “Scenes of Execution: Spectatorship, Political Responsibility, and State Killing in American Film,” was published last month in Law & Social Inquiry, the journal of the American Bar Foundation. I spoke with Sarat by phone today to find out about his findings: what is it, exactly, that filmmakers hope to achieve when depicting the death penalty on screen?

What is it about capital punishment that you wanted to explore? Why use film?

My scholarship has been roughly divided into two parts. I’ve been interested for a period of time in law’s violence: the way law uses violence, threatens violence, domesticates violence, and in particular, the most visible, is capital punishment. I’ve written several things about capital punishment. And I’m interested in the cultural life of law. By that I mean, the way in which legal ideas, legal concepts, legal notions, legal events, and legal phenomena help to constitute cultural life. The scenes of execution study is a kind of merging of those two concerns. For most people, capital punishment is an invisible reality. Or an invisible non-reality. And so, where do people get their imaginings of capital punishment from? Among other places, they get it from film.

Most studies of law and film are interested in how it is that legal actors or phenomena are represented in film, and sometimes they’re interested in whether or not film “gets it right.” When police read Miranda, are they getting it right? When the lawyer stands in front of the jury, is he speaking about the law of the case in a way that’s correct? People look to pop culture for their representational qualities and the accuracy of those representations. My interest in this article was a different thing entirely: how do these scenes of execution position viewers? What do they offer viewers? I was interested in spectatorship and how it relates to democratic responsibility. These scenes invite viewers to participate as vicarious citizens in these scenes.

What about your findings surprised you? Did the study go the way you expected?

I can answer that in a couple of ways. I expected that the typical positioning of the viewer, the typical question would be, does this particular defendant, this particular condemned person, deserve to die? What we found was, the positioning of spectators is much more complicated than that. We’re offered views of the technology of execution. We’re offered the possibility of empathetic identification with the condemned. We’re offered to think about the difference between spectatorship and witnessing. What I found was more complex than what I had imagined would be there. And secondly, this is a historical study, so I’d imagined [there] would be much more variation over time than there seems to be. What I was expecting was more change, and what I found was continuity.

Were your findings altered by the nature of the criminal who is portrayed? If the movie shows the accused is actually innocent, for instance, or if the movie shows the criminal committing a horrible, violent crime, does that have an impact on these execution scenes?

The work that I did concentrated in particular on the scenes of execution. It didn’t trace the entire story of the film. So I wasn’t interested in doing what I’ve done in earlier work — asking, if you have the whole story, what are you thinking about? This is a self-conscious effort to examine the SCENES of execution themselves. So I’m not in a position to say, on the basis of this work, what the narrative structure of these films does, because that was not what I was interested in.

In cultural studies, one can examine different aspects; you can examine the production process, the representational qualities, the way those representational qualities are consumed. This is more of an analysis of the way in which the representational properties of these films make things available to viewers. It’s not an analysis of the way real-life viewers consume these images.

What you mean by “representational qualities”?

My totally layman’s way of describing it is, what did a film show and how did they show it? So do they show us the condemned, and if they do, is it from the point of view of the condemned? Or do they show us the condemned as the object of spectatorship? In a film like Chicago, okay, they show us the scene of execution, but they also jump between the scene of execution and a theatrical scene, and what does that mean?

Which scenes stuck with you? Which are the most important to your study?

I think in a way, the most important of the scenes was the earliest, in this early film, a very brief film, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. We saw a lot of what we would see later, and again, I was surprised by that. The direct address, the scenes of spectatorship in the film. The repeated coming back to notice the audience. And in a way, I think that became a kind of template, which we saw repeatedly in these films. Take the scene of botched execution in the film, The Green Mile. That scene is registered on the faces of the witnesses of those scenes of execution. There are witnesses IN the film. And in so doing, the film, I’d say, raises a critical question for viewers: are our responses like or unlike the response we see registered on the screen? So that self-consciousness about viewing and the meaning of viewing, which again, would unite this very early film, one of the first motion pictures ever made, with a film like The Green Mile. That really stuck with me.

It’s interesting that you bring up “botched executions,” as the issue of executions going awry has been in the news quite a bit lately. Did you notice anything about botched executions specifically in your research?

We studied every scene of execution in American film history in the twentieth century. Most of them are not scenes of botched executions. They’re relatively rare. And what you see in The Green Mile is the startled effect registered on the witnesses. They get up and flee. But I don’t think we can turn to American film for a kind of archival representations of botched executions.

How many scenes did you watch for your study?

The answer is lots, and lots of different genres. It was surprising to me that scenes of execution are found in many different film genres: comedy, westerns, obviously crime dramas.

Did you look at all at how seeing scenes of execution affected audiences?

The whole purpose of the study was to figure out what the invitation is to audiences. We didn’t examine what the actual payoff was, but the whole study is about spectatorship, and the opportunities and questions that are raised by these scenes of execution for spectatorship. And the extent to which these scenes of execution open up, or precipitate or seem to want to precipitate a conversation about democratic responsibility. When we watch these scenes, we’re watching a filmic representation of a democratic act, an act carried out in the name of the people. And what we argued and tried to show in the analysis is how American film is trying to raise a question about our responsibility, the question of the responsibility of citizens.

Could you tell, from your study, if the death penalty is more common in film than in life? Do people leave these movies with the idea that capital punishment occurs in this country more frequently than it actually does?

The death penalty is a frequent subject in American film, but crime and punishment is a frequent subject in American film. So I don’t know that what we would say is that spectators come away thinking that there’s more instances of capital punishment than there is from looking at these films.

Did watching all these scenes change your views on capital punishment at all?

I’ve been studying capital punishment for a long time, and actually at the time that I was doing this work, I was also doing a study of botched executions in the United States. So my views and thoughts about capital punishment are the product of quite a long period of study and reflection, and I can’t say that those views were fundamentally altered or changed by what I saw. I will say that to watch scenes of execution in film is not an easy thing to do. It’s a little bit like sitting in the emergency room and watching people come in. While [the executions I watched were] on film, there is no doubt that it’s just not an easy thing to do. So my reaction wasn’t so much of my thinking about capital punishment has changed. My reaction was, oh my God, I’ve gotta go watch another scene of execution to try to understand it. I do think that there’s a kind of moral-political responsibility associated with being a citizen in a state that executes. And I was reminded of that moral-political responsibility as I watched these scenes of execution.

What is your position on capital punishment?

I’ll tell you the following: I published a book in 2001 called When the State Kills: Capital Punishment and the American Condition, And in that book I described the difference between what I called traditional abolitionists and new abolitionists. Traditional abolitionists object to capital punishment on moral grounds; new abolitionists object on practical grounds. A traditional abolitionist would say capital punishment is incompatible with a society trying to abjure revenge. For new abolitionists, the subject of capital punishment is about its administration, the way in which it operates from day to day. And I’m convinced by the new abolitionism.

I worry that whatever the death penalty is supposed to be doing for us, it is exacting an extraordinary cost on American values. So it’s perfectly possible to be pro-capital punishment but against executing the innocent; it’s perfectly possible to be pro-capital punishment but be against executing someone because of the race of their victims. It is perfectly possible to be pro-capital punishment in the abstract, but be against the idea of [someone facing capital punishment] because of the quality of their lawyers, or to be repulsed by the frequent breakdowns in the capital punishment system. So what I think about capital punishment, I think about the system that we have, not the system that we wish we had. And I think about the cost that the system of capital punishment is exacting on American values.

Wouldn’t being concerned with values make you a traditional abolitionist, not a new one? An objection on moral grounds?

By American values I mean the values of due process, equal protection under a law, and the prohibition of cruel punishment. Those are legal arguments, not moral ones. I’m not interested in the debate in the abstract of whether or not someone deserves the death penalty. I’m interested in, whether or not the way in which it operates damages us at all.