As Hollywood attempts to illuminate cracks in the criminal justice system, it must also dismantle the dangerous racial paradigms of criminality and virtue.

Though the bulk of director Edward Zwick’s new film, Trial by Fire, is trained on the failings of the American criminal justice system, there is one moment in the middle of the film that is especially evocative. It comes when protagonist Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) details the unfairness of his conviction to a neighbouring inmate, while they both await execution on death row. Leaning against the bars of his cell, Willingham’s companion explains that injustice is the main artery of capital punishment—or, as he puts it, if “you ain’t got no capital, you get punished.”

The observation rings true, though when Willingham spent 12 years on death row for a crime he likely did not commit, the real life circumstances of his incarceration were even graver; according to Elizabeth Gilbert, the Texas woman who campaigned for his exoneration, Willingham was not kept behind open bars where he could converse with nearby inmates, but instead was locked in a solid room with only two very small windows. Over the phone in May, Gilbert explained to me, “Todd was not like in the movie where there were bars and he could see people and talk to people [..] they only see another person when they go out to shower and go to an exercise pen, which is not that big round space you see in the movie; it’s a small pen, and that’s the only other time they can see another prisoner face to face, and can maybe talk to them. It’s very, very restrictive.”  

Willingham was jailed and sentenced to death in 1991, accused of starting a fire in his home that claimed the lives of his three daughters. When Gilbert, a playwright, became his penpal, she realized that the arson investigation had been mismanaged and witness testimonies had changed dramatically from the day of the fire up to the trial. She gathered evidence that the case had been botched and spearheaded a campaign for his release. Five years after his death, the Texas Forensic Science Commission determined that “a finding of arson could not be sustained.” Released in theaters last weekend, Trial by Fire tracks Willingham’s life from the ‘crime’ to his eventual execution in 2004.

In 2019, Americans have a heaping of media narratives about criminal justice at their fingertips.  There is Orange is the New Black, the last season of which drops later this summer, as well as other shows like Inside the World’s Toughest Prisons, Escape at Dannemora, and Making a Murderer. Even the CW’s spin-off of the Archie comics, Riverdale, had a crack at incarceration this year; leaning heavily on references to Shawshank Redemption, Archie was held in a private prison run by his girlfriend’s evil father for a murder that he didn’t commit, and then forced to box in an underground fight club run by the corrupt warden. The show repeatedly described the jail as a “for-profit prison,” pointing to a mounting interest in this issue even in media geared towards teens.  

Criminal justice is also seeping into forms of ‘reality’ media. Earlier in May, it was revealed that Kim Kardashian had a hand in releasing 17 inmates over a three month period, and is training to become a lawyer. A TV program, Kim Kardashian: The Justice Project, is in the works with Oxygen Media. Like Gilbert’s efforts to free Willingham in the late 1990s, Kardashian has specifically focused on overturning wrongful convictions, one of the most common storylines depicted in media about prison.

Despite the obvious uptick in interest, it would be wrong to designate this amplified visibility as a trend; the popularization of prison ‘media’ is simply an outgrowth of the popularization of mass incarceration. According to The Sentencing Project, the number of prisoners in the U.S. has grown by 500% in the past forty years, with black Americans being incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. The expansion of prisons has become a tool of the anti-immigrant agenda as well, disproportionately impacting undocumented folks as prison companies co-mingle with—and invest in—deportation centers. (It is estimated that every day, the private corrections corporations GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America/CoreCivic together detain approximately 15,000 people in private immigration detention.)

Though mainstream entertainment properties are eager to illuminate cracks in the criminal justice system, are they capturing the most accurate view possible, or one that reinforces myths and stereotypes? In most of the aforementioned stories, the incarcerated protagonists are white. This repeated narrative of the wrongful imprisonment of white folks, and the sanctity of their innocence, not only obfuscates the entrenchment of racism in modern prisons, but also points to an impulse to uphold dangerous racial paradigms of criminality and virtue. The maintenance of white innocence has historically been contingent on false accusations and violent retaliation against black men (often at the behest of white women). As on-screen narratives interface with the prison system, spanning wrongful conviction to capital punishment, deciding whose stories get told (and, as such, believed) has real-life consequences.

Edwin Grimsley is a PhD candidate at CUNY, and previously worked with The Innocence Project for 10 years, where he helped exonerate seven people. “When it comes to wrongful conviction and race, I found that there is actually a dearth of people who have written on it,” he tells me. “One of the things that I did was try to start conversations about it, so I did most of my research [is] looking at DNA exoneration. Black men [make up] 61-62% of the people who are exonerated through DNA, so that was an eye-opening point. For youth who are exonerated, the disparities are even higher, especially for black youth, who make up about 75% of youth exoneration.”

Turning to the depiction of criminal justice in the media, Grimsley says, “Many big movies and big documentaries have depicted the white male being exonerated, but I think that’s really a problem for pushing the connection between race and wrongful conviction in particular, and [also for] the criminal justice system at large and the wide net that it covers just for people of color. Specifically for black men, and even for black females, because there is hardly anything written on them when there are just as many disparities.”

Though Trial by Fire recounts a true story about a white inmate, it focuses on class as a criterion for discrimination; stereotypes about low income delinquent behaviour drove the case against Willingham in real life, too, and prevented him from accessing adequate legal representation. It should be stressed, however, that for incarcerated people of color, the prejudice audiences see leveled against Willingham is likely also compounded by racism.

The 2019 film Clemency, directed by Chinonye Chukwu, was written in the aftermath of Troy Davis’ execution in 2011, and extends the agenda of Trial by Fire with gut-wrenching precision.  Chukwu depicts two deaths in detail—at the film’s opening, an execution goes wrong and the conscious prisoner twitches in agony for several minutes before dying, while at the film’s close, an execution is performed on an inmate who has been framed by racists. The story is bookended by deaths that are both erroneous for different reasons, revealing the limits of the justice system and the fallibility of its institutions.

Gilbert says, “If you execute a person and you’re wrong, you cannot rectify it… yet once you are convicted, the means of undoing that conviction are so difficult and the prosecution is so reticent to acknowledge that they made a mistake, or maybe in [Todd’s] case, deliberately ensured a conviction based on the emotional reaction of the public.”

Grimsley adds that we have to reconsider what “wrongful conviction” actually means. “We have many people in prison who shouldn’t really be there, for very small crimes—overcharging, drug crimes—and we need more of a debate about that too,” he says. “We have to expand our definition of wrongful conviction. It’s really only about actual innocence, but in reality, wrongful conviction could be about sentencing, overcharging, over-arrests, and many other issues too.”

Gilbert hopes that Trial by Fire, and other films like it, can galvanize a public movement to abolish the death penalty. Or, at least in the meantime, improve conditions for inmates on death row, and change the outlook of potential jurors. “If enough people see this movie and become a part of a community that talks about it, people will be less inclined, I think, to give someone the death penalty, knowing that an error has been made,” she says. Willingham’s case is one of many controversial executions that forces us to question the credibility of so-called ‘due process’ and the role that class, race, and social identity play in determining who gets to be ‘innocent.’ Freeing the wrongfully convicted is a meaningful way to change lives and make injustice more conspicuous. But, at some point, we also have to address the root causes so that no one is unfairly incarcerated—or killed—in the first place.