For several years now I have shown the 1995 film Dead Man Walking to my students towards the end of our unit on ethics. We’ve already discussed the ethical theories espoused by Plato, Aristotle, Bentham, Kant and Mill and as I know most are heading to the US for university, I ask if they know if their new “home state” has the death penalty. I often laugh as some of them begin to realize that UC Berkeley, Dartmouth, Yale and UPenn not only offer great undergraduate experiences, but also the potential for lethal injection! I’m cruel, I know!
While the film always generates great and heated discussion as it quite adeptly walks the tightrope between the two sides and graphically demonstrates that there are no easy answers to be had, I have begun to realize that there is a visual literacy aspect I could add to the proceedings. Granted, I have now watched this film a dozen times so it’s not surprising I’ve picked up on things that most people don’t get in a first viewing (unless they’re film students).
This year, I prefaced the showing by asking them to watch the relationship between the two main characters, Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) and Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), especially as they interact in the prison scenes. When the film is finished, and after we’ve had the usual post-mortem discussions on the death penalty, I turn their attention to that initial prompt and ask them what they noticed. I then give small groups digital access to 21 screen shots from the film and ask them to put them into a PowerPoint in chronological order. This isn’t too difficult as there are cues and they have just finished the film. Once they have the 21 in order, I ask them to look over them and as a group, see if they can see what story has been told simply through the images.
I ask them if they can determine, through the 21 images alone, which side of the issue the filmmaker, Tim Robbins, is likely on. This puts them in the position of assembling data, analyzing and then synthesizing it into a single argument about the subtle but clear bias of the filmmaker. There are some techniques of light, shadow, pov, etc. that when stripped of all the other aspects of the film start to become clear when they see these images in stark contrast.
Sean Penn’s character moves gradually from dark, oblique, caged animal (in contrast to Sarandon’s white, direct human) to a light, direct human being as he’s being walked to his execution. The point of view shifts from Sarandon’s side of the screen to split-screen to Penn’s side as our allegiances shift as well. Similarly, the actual venues for their meetings shift from cage to glass to direct contact.
In a final step, I ask groups to choose which one of the 21 images best embodies the essence of the entire film. Which single image tells the entire story…if you know how to “read” it correctly.