Millions of people listened to the “Serial” podcast and learned all about Adnan Syed. Millions of people watched the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” and now know the story of Steven Avery. “The Jinx” on HBO has also been hugely popular. People seem to be fascinated by these stories of true crime, possible innocent people in jail, and questionable police conduct. While it seems like interest in these types of stories exploded just in the past year, they have actually been around for awhile now. If you’ve listened to all of “Serial” and watched all of “Making a Murderer”, and you’re looking for more stories like these, here are some older films you may have missed.
This is the film that in many ways started it all. Released in 1988 it tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted of killing a police officer and given a life sentence. The film examines the evidence, interviews the police officers who investigated the crime, and the witnesses as well. It also has a distinctive score by the great Philip Glass. By the end of the film you are convinced that Randall Dale Adams is innocent, and he was indeed released from prison about a year after the film was released, in large part because of the reaction this movie provoked. This groundbreaking film is well worth watching and is still considered one of the greatest documentaries of all time.
If you were a fan of “Serial” you will also love the “Paradise Lost” trilogy of documentaries. The “Paradise Lost” films tell the true story of the Memphis Three who were convicted of the murder of three young boys in their West Memphis neighborhood in 1994. Very much like Adnan Syed, the Memphis Three claimed their innocence during their trial, and there were a number of questions about the evidence the prosecution presented. Like “Making a Murderer” there is extensive use of footage from their actual trials. These are fascinating and riveting documentaries that unfold over time and were made over a 15-year period. You’ll find your sympathies shifting and your views of certain characters changing over the course of the documentaries. It can be hard to tell who the “good guys” are vs the “bad guys”. The first film is basically about the crime and the trial, the second film really gets into the evidence and is about the effort to free them, and the third film wraps up the whole story with a fascinating conclusion.
If you don’t have time to sit through three films about the Memphis Three, you can watch this single documentary instead. “West of Memphis” was co-produced by “Lord of The Rings” director Peter Jackson. It also tells the story of the Memphis Three and the effort to free them. While the Paradise Lost films were made over time, “West of Memphis” was made after the Paradise Lost films and focuses more on theories about who the real killer was. It is also perhaps a little more celebrity driven as there were a number of entertainment figures who tried to raise awareness of the case who are interviewed in the film. All of the films about the Memphis Three are similar to “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” in that serious questions are raised about the criminal justice system and possible police and prosecutor misconduct.
“The Central Park Five” is another excellent documentary from Ken Burns. This was a case that made national headlines when it happened. A young woman was brutally raped in Central Park and five young men who had been part of a “wilding” gang were convicted of the crime. At the time it seemed like the entire country and the press were convinced that all five men were guilty. They had each given videotaped confessions in which they gave detailed accounts of the crime. It turned out that they were innocent, however, and eventually the truth came out. This fascinating documentary shows how the media and public opinion can shape how defendants are seen, perceived, and sometimes pre-judged. It also shows how the police can use interrogation techniques that can elicit false confessions.
This film is based on the true story of the Guildford Four, four Irishmen who were falsely convicted of carrying out an IRA bombing of a pub in England. Daniel Day Lewis gives one of his most powerful performances as Gerry Conlon, one of the Irishmen who was falsely accused by the British police. Conlon was forced to sign a confession and spent over 15 years in prison before he was eventually freed. While he was in prison a lawyer investigating the case uncovered documents that proved the police had fabricated the case against him. This is another powerful story about an innocent man who was convicted because of police misconduct.
One of the things that unites all of these stories and documentaries is that they are all stories about men who were innocent and eventually released from prison. They are also stories where a horrific crime was committed and the police departments and prosecutors were under a tremendous amount of pressure to bring the perpetrators to justice as quickly as possible, so mistakes were made. While all of these documentaries can be a little hard to watch at times, they all have “happy” endings. After seeing everything these men go through, it can be exhilarating to see the scenes when they are finally free. All of these documentaries are well worth watching (and available in our collection!) if you enjoyed “Making a Murderer” or “Serial”.