Not exactly what I expected to be writing about Yoav Potash's spare documentary, CRIME AFTER CRIME. I was all geared up, in fact, to comment on dysfunctions endemic to many black communities, given that the film's about a black woman unjustly incarcerated for life.
Something else happened, however, that changed my point of view and made me see that CRIME AFTER CRIME is not so much a documentary about "justice," per se, as it is a tale that asks what a worthy life looks like and how we can serve one another. It shows how senseless tragedies cannot be undone, perhaps, but a new way -- a path to wisdom -- can be forged.
But like many good things, it's sometimes hard to see the clear line of wisdom through the chaos of life, especially when the landscape is as stark as the one in this film: pimps and prostitutes, broken homes, gang culture... Certainly, these concerns are not exclusive to some black communities, but considering that while "blacks accounted for 13 percent of the U.S. population but were victims in 15 percent of all nonfatal violent crimes and nearly half of all homicides," (2005, Bureau of Justice Statistics) blacks have been disproportionately represented in many of these areas.
What's more, the details of the main character's life read like a recipe for those dysfunctions: Debbie Peagler is introduced (by her mother) to Oliver Wilson, a teenager who works at the local grocery in their Los Angeles community. He's charming and handsome. He buys Debbie nice presents and the like, while secretly molesting Debbie's young daughter. (Debbie, by the way, is just 15 and yes, already has a child.)
Later, and sufficiently comfortable with his hold on Debbie, Oliver forces her into prostitution. When Debbie refuses, he beats her. All of this brutality happens within the confines of "community" and "family." Despite Oliver's run-ins with the law and police knowledge of his violence at home, the authorities do not provide Debbie with adequate protection and neither Debbie nor Oliver's extended family is able to curb his behavior. Debbie's single mother is ineffective at protecting Debbie; Oliver's family is riddled with sex offenders. When Debbie's mother suggests that two hoods "scare" Debbie's boyfriend, the gangsters end up killing the teen and landing Debbie in jail -- for life. It's 1983.
The entry point for the story is 2002, when after nearly two decades of jail time, a new law in California allows domestic violence cases like Debbie's to be reopened. Two land-use attorneys, Joshua Safran and Nadia Costa, sign up to represent Debbie pro bono. As they review the case, they realize that if Debbie had been justly sentenced, she would never have gotten life, nor would she have been refused parole.
[I don't usually discuss this much of the plot in a review, but since CRIME AFTER CRIME is so driven by the facts of the Debbie's case, there'd be scarcely anything to analyze for you if I didn't share them. That said, you have my apologies if I reveal too much.]
Joshua is an orthodox Jew; he tells us one particular prayer has meaning for him: "To free those who are bound." And Nadia says she's a runner, training for ultra-marathons, 100-mile races. And I'm thinking, well they are very well meaning, but do they have a clue what they're getting into?"
But as Yoav spins his tale, we see more and more that Joshua and Nadia are people of tremendous substance. We learn that both attorneys escaped violent and/or abusive situations and that advocating for Debbie and women like her is not just something nice to do, it's personal.
Debbie's been an ideal inmate, earning two college degrees, holding down a management job in one of the prison factories, inspiring other women to pursue their educational degrees, singing in the choir, making amends with the victim's family, yet a politicized parole board refuses her petition for release time and again.
By mid-movie, it looks like Debbie might never get out, and, as if to add fuel to this fear, we learn the D.A. reneges on a plea deal that would have freed her.
Here we see Nadia's wisdom shine through, as she explains that this case is like a race:
Just put one foot in front of the other.
We see Joshua's courage, as he soldiers on, even though the odds are against them.
And the film is beginning to show its real form -- it's less about a woman who did wrong/was wronged, although that is a component of the story, as it is a tale about our common humanity and shared struggle to find true meaning, connection and understanding in our lives -- whatever our racial or cultural background, or whatever mistakes we've made.
[SPOILER ALERT- skip this graf if you really don't want to know anything else about the plot.] When Debbie develops terminal cancer, we watch her suffer through chemo, bloated and bald. Attorneys, Debbie's family, the investigator (Bobby Buechler, who's been hired to find -- and actually does locate -- the smoking gun that gets Debbie freed) are all putting on a brave face. It seems improbably cruel the way things have played out. But Debbie keeps moving, from the inside. Outwardly, her face recalibrates: tight, efficient. Her hair is a halo of silver. We see Debbie's strength as she meets each obstacle. We witness a person changing from naive girl to wise woman.
The transformative nature of this journey is brought home when the battle-worn investigator thanks Debbie for how she's helped him. And this small moment is a kind of key to the film, serving Debbie's cause gave Bobby a gift of meaning and focus. In a sense, she "saved" him, even as he was helping to free her.
Debbie sings, "none of us are free if one of us is chained, none of us are free!" In that hymn, Debbie says quite joyfully the same prayer that so inspires Joshua, to free those who are bound. Watching this film, you may see how this freedom can happen -- even in prison -- and how both prayers are heartfelt interrogations with the divine about the purpose of our lives. How do we live a good life, especially when we feel we've lost our way--?
When I first watched this film, I tried to describe what I'd experienced to a friend and couldn't, I started yammering about the "black condition" and "battered women" and then I stopped myself.
What I'd seen was bigger.
And it's not like I could say, oh go see this movie, it's such a great escape! It's not an opiate, not a nice pretty thing that gets tied up with a bow. It might make you cry and feel sad for the troubles of the world.
CRIME AFTER CRIME has none of the noise of the blockbusters -- no fancy animation, no blasting music, no "fiction."
It's so quiet you can finally hear your heart. What that beating heart is saying is up to you.
For me it whispered:
All that's broken can heal, everything mends with grace.
And isn't that mysterious? Isn't that something to be joyful about?
CRIME AFTER CRIME is now in theaters.