Last month I co-produced a radio story in my audio storytelling class about a program called “Life After Justice.’ I was really inspired by the story, and I think aspects of it could make an exciting documentary.
Over the past few decades, use of DNA testing in the criminal justice system has exploded, and as a result, more and more innocent convicts are getting out of jail. My radio piece focused on two exonerees: Antione Day and Jarett Adams, who are working together to provide a safe place for newly released exonerees to live as they piece their lives back together.
Day served 10 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and when he was released in 2002, he was essentially cast out on the streets with nowhere to go.
Sadly, this is not an uncommon scenario. Media frenzies surrounding people who are exonerated often leave the public with the sense that justice has been served now that the innocent man has been released. In reality it’s a lot more complicated than that, especially when it comes to finances. As Cook county public defender Emily DeYoe asserted in our interview for this story:
“There is this idea that if you were released from prison and somebody wrote a news story about you, you have multimillion dollars coming towards you. Which is absolutely not the case, so there are tons of financial struggles that exonerees all over the place are facing.”
In fact, not even half of exonerees get any compensation at all, which is a major problem for them when it comes to finding ways to support themselves. With gaping holes on their resumes from their wrongful jail time, employers aren’t exactly jumping up and down to hire them.
And that’s where Day and Adams come in. When it’s finished, the Life After Justice program will be a safe house that will provide the wrongfully convicted counseling, job training, and access to legal services. Day himself is fixing up two abandoned homes in Chicago’s southwest Austin neighborhood to house this program. One of them used to be his aunt’s.
Another interesting thing about Day is his involvement in a band made up of entirely exonerees. The band is touring in Portland this weekend, but we have plans to meet with Day and the other members early next week to hear their stories and see whether we could follow them around for a few months. I think this documentary could focus on Day’s work with the Life After Justice house as well as his music. We’ll know more next week, and this is just one idea that we’re working on, but I’m really excited about the possibilities here.
Review of ‘The Times of Harvey Milk’
I watched the full movie last night with my roommate, a native of San Francisco, and it was all she could do to keep from crying out with homesickness every time a beauty shot of the Castro graced the screen. Of course she’d seen the movie before (she tells me every liberal teenager in San Francisco goes through a Harvey Milk phase), but even the second time around she was as enthralled by the story as I was—and yes, we both cried at the end.
It seems this documentary was the pet project of Rob Epstein, who directed, wrote and produced it. IMDB asserts that this was only his second film, and what a lucky break he got with the whole Oscar situation. He’s gone on to have quite an exciting career, and I’d be willing to bet this movie has a lot to do with that.
What I enjoyed most about this film was the way they presented Milk as a real, well-rounded person. We talked in class about how documentaries can sometimes make their main character a kind of untouchable god—but that’s not what happened here. I liked watching the evolution of Milk as a person: a scraggly teen, an upright military man, a flower child with political aspirations. He absolutely seemed like a joke, even to these modern eyes, the first time he ran for office, and the movie doesn’t shy away from that point. Half of the people who are interviewed admit to being put off by him at first. But as he fought for his time in the limelight, he learned how to deal with people, he learned what made a great leader, and he became one. When he was finally elected he both looked and acted the part.
On the flip side, I almost wanted more of a story from Dan White. I definitely saw him as a person, and the filmmakers did a good job of not turning him into a senseless villain, but I have to say I didn’t fully understand why he did what he did. In his will, Milk describes the kind of person who might want to kill him as someone scared with nowhere else to turn. While I understood his reasons for killing the mayor, shaky and irrational as they were, I didn’t get as good a sense of White’s contentious relationship with Milk. Of course they stood for different things, but I never saw outright animosity between them. Maybe it was just hard to capture after the fact, I don’t know, but it would have been helpful for me to understand their working relationship better. Of course from a cinematic or narrative standpoint, Milk stood for everything White was against, but that’s a trope of fiction, and real people are much more complicated. I wanted more of White’s inner psyche, and less of his “I was super stressed” defense.
I think the most powerful moment for me was the assertion by one of his friends that so many people came out of the closet in the days and weeks after the candlelight march. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she talked about the tragic irony of this: that only through death could Milk bring the kind of change his life was dedicated to.
It’s difficult to think about what things must have been like for gay and lesbian people in that time, difficult to imagine having to hide a fundamental part of yourself in your public, everyday life. It seems crazy now, but it was a fact of life back then. I never thought before about when things changed, when it became OK to identify as gay in your professional life, but the film presents Milk’s death as a sort of tipping point, a moment when people decided they’d had enough of hiding who they were and together, stepped proudly into the open.