We live in a new world of storytelling.
Where once upon a time, the stories of people like Robert Durst, Steven Avery, and Adnan Masud Syed would be known to a one community for a while, then fade into even their collective conscience, now these sorts of cases are discussed on a broad scale. We aren’t interested in putting together the jigsaw puzzles of their lives anymore so much as we want to hold each piece up to the light and deeply examine them before thinking about its rightful place.
Not the place that we are told they fit, mind you, but where they really and truly should be in relationship to the grander picture.
It’s almost crazy to think that this wasn’t always the way…that every legal case wasn’t retried in the court of public opinion years after the fact. In many ways though, so much of it is a new phenomenon…and much of it owes a great debt to THE THIN BLUE LINE.
In the autumn of 1976, a man named Randall Adams found himself stranded in Dallas. He was offered a lift by a teenager named David Ray Harris who (unbeknownst to Adams) was driving a stolen car with both a shotgun and a pistol on-board. The two hung out through the day, doing all manner of mindless activities before capping things off with a drive-in movie. As the left the drive-in, a police cruiser pulled them over since they were driving without headlights.
When officer Robert W Wood approached the car, he was shot and killed by someone in the front seat.
Harris said that Adams did the shooting; Adams denied it. However, his denial wasn’t forceful enough since he was still convicted of murder.
THE THIN BLUE LINE underscores just how bad a travesty of justice this one case was.
Time after time in this series, I’ve come across an “original gangster”. A technique, a line, a camera move that I have taken for granted because of how commonplace it is? I have to tip my cap when I get back to the source.
In this case “the source” is a technique where the interviewees are speaking almost straight to camera (which the director will later perfect), the employing of vignettes that illustrate and re-enact the story, and the overall effect of changing real-world events by daring to stand-up and ask “why?”.
Not only would the look and tone of this doc be copied as time went on, but so too would its goals. It’s one thing for a work of nonfiction to turn the tide in a court case that is long since settled now. To be clear; it was the facts and biases laid out by this film that eventually lead to Adams’ sentence being overturned by The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
In the age of social media, it is far easier to make one’s voice of dissent heard. But nearly 30 years ago? It required a ton of pressure to re-open a settled court case. Not only was it harder to voice dissent, but the avenues for unveiling the truth were just so muted.
That’s why the achievement of this documentary is so momentous, and so much a part of its legacy; it out jinxed The Jinx when one needed to wait for PBS to see a documentary.
What THE THIN BLUE LINE reminds us of is that American justice isn’t truly blind; it is biased and it is prone to suggestion. This is true because at the end of it all, American justice is human, and as-such susceptible to quid-pro-quo, stupidity, corruption, and error.
All the same, there is something of a danger in handing over this sort of investigative journalism to the hands of documentarians. Because these storytellers are independent and not beholden to any sort of charter of principles (as a reputable news outlet would be), they are free to tell whatever side of the story they choose in whatever way they choose to tell it.
That’s not to suggest that people like Lynne Poitras, or Werner Herzog, or Michael Moore are playing fast and loose with the facts – none of them, or their contemporaries, are nearly that reckless.
It’s only to suggest that those that stoke the fire of nonfiction do-so in ways that are both provocative and poignant. In other words the whole truth may not interest them – just the truth they choose to tell and the truth that furthers their career and their cred. It’s not about “getting it right” so much as it is posing a question, posing a theory, and giving us just enough to connect the dots for ourselves.
A documentary like THE THIN BLUE LINE doesn’t deserve to be cross-examined in this way, since it clearly cross-examined itself several times over. Much of that has to be credited to the film’s director, a former private detective.
However, in an age where more and more credible media outlets are drying up, and more and more documentaries are being released…one wonders why more stories of human rights violation aren’t coming to light.
Perhaps because there are gaps in their journalism?
For many – and probably for everybody who reads a post like this on a site like mine – it’s almost an alien concept that documentaries didn’t always come with the sort of clout and panache that most modern pieces of nonfiction do. The art form has undergone such a renaissance as this century has gone on, that it’s hard to believe that finding these films once took a lot of doing and that they didn’t always look as splendid as they now do.
Mary Poppins once said something about a spoonful of sugar, and if anyone was listening to that iconic lyric, it was Errol Morris.
He easily could have written an expose, or created a segment for 60 Minutes that called attention to the miscarriage of justice. However, we are a visual people, and sometimes a little bit of hand-holding goes a long way to help get the point across. That spoonful of sugar that came by way of the re-enactments and the vignettes, not only did it help us to engage with one example of a common American story, but it set the template for years to come.
It’s strange to say that THE THIN BLUE LINE was more impactful because it assumes its audience needs its hand-held; but it was and we do.
It’s sadly not enough anymore to talk about one’s basic human rights being trampled…we need to paint a picture.
I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for February so far…
Rebecca watched IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE
Beatrice watched HAROLD AND MAUDE
Courtney watched DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST
Keisha watched MCCABE & MRS. MILLER
Erin watched I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG
Coog watched BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA
Donald watched INCENDIES, GOOD WILL HUNTING, and THE BEFORE TRILOGY
Dell watched BUGSEY MALONE
Anna watched BARRY LYNDON
Jenna and Allie watched ALIEN
Katie watched THE ODD COUPLE
Joshua watched THE SEVENTH SEAL
Andy watched SUNRISE
Jay watched IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT
Chris watched BETTY BLUE
Dan watched THE HOST
Brittani watched ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
Sean watched THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI
Kristina watched RIFIFI
Kevin watched THE STING
Steven watched A TRIP TO THE MOON