Vol. 30 No. 7 (August 2020) pp. 100 - 103

LIGHTS, CAMERA, EXECUTION: CINEMATIC PORTRAYALS OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT by Helen J. Knowles, Bruce E. Altschuler, and Jaclyn Schildkraut. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2019. 183 pp. Hardcover $83.32. ISBN: 978-1498579667.

Reviewed by Aaron R.S. Lorenz, Law & Society, Ramapo College. Email:

LIGHTS, CAMERA, EXECUTION is an innovative and creative resource for those interested in better understanding the complexities surrounding society’s desire for vengeance and capital punishment. The authors, Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut, pen an outstanding summary and assessment of historical and contemporary times related to the death penalty. Using filmmaking, the authors effectively persuade the reader that capital punishment in America should not be viewed as isolated to specific crimes or defendants.

The authors use nine films to connect the deep and overlapping issues of capital punishment in the United States. Chapter by chapter, they explore these films: MURDER IN COWETA COUNTY, THE THIN BLUE LINE, DEAD MAN WALKING, THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE, A LESSON BEFORE DYING, THE GREEN MILE, THE CHAMBER, LAST DANCE, AND MONSTER’S BALL. The analysis is probing. Setting the tone of the book, their study of MURDER IN COWETA COUNTY provides the reader with the vision of “southern justice.” The 1983 made-for-TV-movie starring Andy Griffith and Johnny Cash was based on the 1948 murder of Wilson Turner, a sharecropper who was murdered by the white, wealthy landowner, John Wallace. In 1950, Wallace became the richest man executed and the first in Georgia convicted based on the testimony of black men. Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut establish the tone for the book as they begin to address the intersection between race, class, and capital punishment. Their treatment of the murder concludes with an anecdote about the grandson of the sheriff from 1948 who notes about the road named after John Wallace, “Maybe it teaches people a lesson…the more they realize that everyone is accountable under the law” (pp. 31-32).

The author’s treatment of THE THIN BLUE LINE shows the difficulty in detailing Errol Morris’ 1988 documentary which tells the story of a wrongful conviction and overzealous prosecutor [*101] against the backdrop of the history of the electric chair and gas chambers in Nazi Germany. In their discussion of DEAD MAN WALKING, they once again address the complexity of capital punishment. The film is based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic Sister who befriended a death row defendant played by Sean Penn. The film is lauded for its behind-the-scenes look at the process leading up to the execution. Just as Justice Marshall discussed in FURMAN V. GEORGIA (1972), the history of capital punishment in America speaks to the finality of it. He writes in his concurrence, “While this fact cannot affect our ultimate decision, it necessitates that the decision be free from any possibility of error” (p. 408). Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut use this notion to connect DEAD MAN WALKING and its final scenes with the idea that executions do not ultimately provide closure. That ambiguity is what legal scholars focus on, what the director Tim Robbins focused on, and why LIGHTS, CAMERA, EXECUTION is so effective in considering the emotional and legal components of the death penalty through the lens of film.

One of the strengths of this book is the authors’ ability to simultaneously connect each of the nine films while also isolating them to provide their warranted attention. In their discussion of THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE, they provide detailed analysis of a unique Hollywood tale about a philosophy professor who is sentenced to death for killing a fellow capital punishment opponent. Given the profession of the lead character played by Kevin Spacey, it is no surprise that THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE is especially philosophical in its discovery of truth and justice as it relates to the death penalty. Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut detail Gale’s conviction as emblematic of the legal conundrum that there is no single truth. Instead, the law, particularly the processes involved in capital punishment, struggles with assessing the accuracy of witnesses testifying or more broadly debated, precisely what “beyond a reasonable doubt” means. This is one of the strengths of the book, a masterful detailing of legal concepts debated for generations but placed against the backdrop of film. This is akin to the work of John Brigham in THE CONSTITUTION OF INTERESTS when he argues that it is the law that makes something what it is. The work of Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut follows that constitutive notion in that norms simply become less clear, particularly because they are unconventional.

Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut also present THE GREEN MILE. Based off of the book by Stephen King, director Frank Darabont presents the story of Paul Edgecomb, supervisor of death row, and John Coffey, death row prisoner. As with much of King’s [*102] novels, symbolism is rampant. In this tale, Coffey is a symbol of good and evil, truth and lies, finality and ambiguity. When Coffey’s execution day comes, Edgecomb has come to feel for Coffey’s impending death, both for Coffey and himself. His moral crossroads results in the execution of Coffey but with some ambiguity. Just as Renee Ann Cramer’s PREGNANT WITH THE STARS discusses, it is the continuity of law as a means of social control. The film ends with Edgecomb years later, clearly affected by his years as a death row supervisor. Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut remind us that with Coffey, a black man, and Edgecomb, a white man, issues of race clearly infect Hollywood and the law in regards to capital punishment.

Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut present the 1994 John Grisham novel, THE CHAMBER, made into a film in 1996, to show how capital punishment in America has regional influences. As with most of Grisham’s work, it is set in the American South and a young, bright lawyer begrudgingly comes in to bring justice. Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut use the film to ask some of the questions Grisham attempts to ask in the movie: can executions be more humane? Is the method of execution worthy of consideration in regards to the Eighth Amendment? Just as Justice Brennan noted in his dissent in GREGG V. GEORGIA (1976), “the struggle about this punishment has been one between ancient and deeply rooted beliefs in retribution, atonement or vengeance…it is this essentially moral conflict that forms the backdrop…” (p. 228). The book and film, as well as the corresponding analysis by Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut, detail a changing discussion on the death penalty. Abolitionists became more commonplace in public dialogue, particularly after Justice Blackmun’s 1994 position that he would “no longer tinker with the machinery of death” (p. 127). The morality of the death penalty was a conversation piece in both legal and societal settings.

LIGHTS, CAMERA, EXECUTION cites all of the contemporary legal scholars researching capital punishment, most notably Austin Sarat. Like Sarat, Knowles, Altschuler, and Schildkraut provide context to the discussion on capital punishment in the United States. They use film to show the racial, class-based, moral, and democratic ideals that impact the historical and contemporary debates. While the death penalty remains a controversial issue and one oftentimes used in classes to spark conversation, it is a complex issue that legal scholars and Hollywood will continue to consider, if only to better understand notions of retribution and vengeance. [*103]


FURMAN V. GEORGIA, 408 U.S. 238 (1972).

GREGG V. GEORGIA, 428 U.S. 153, (1976).



Cramer, Renee Ann. 2015. PREGNANT WITH THE STARS: WATCHING AND WANTING THE CELEBRITY BABY BUMP. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.

© Copyright 2020 by the author, Aaron R.S. Lorenz.