Dead Women Walking
Content warning: capital punishment / government issued and administered death penalty
I’ve rarely felt more wrecked than after the final scene of Dead Women Walking. This movie is haunting and tender all at once, an exploration of nine incarcerated women who have been handed down the harshest, most chilling verdict that any justice system has to offer: the death penalty.
The death penalty is still common in the U.S.; in Virginia where most of my family lives, lethal injections are administered every couple of years. I used to take the concept of capital punishment for granted, a “necessary evil” of keeping order in society. But it’s not legal in my current home state of New York, so it’s become one topic (of many) I’ve learned to examine and question more critically.
Dead Women Walking looks at something slightly different: women on death row. What crimes do these women commit to send them there? Does it differ from their male counterparts?
Director Hagar Ben-Asher is Israeli, which adds complexity to her perspective on this topic. Israel has been in the news for decades for its violent conflicts in the Gaza strip and Palestine. Yet, there is no longer the death penalty in Israel, as there is in the U.S. That is one act of violence the Israelis have stepped away from and rejected.
It’s important to remember that this drama is a fiction, even though at times it feels like a documentary; none of the women you see are actually death row inmates. Ben-Asher uses abandoned prisons as her set pieces and the U.S. prison system as the framework, and structures the movie into vignettes which introduce nine women at different points in the final 24 hours before their sentence is carried out.
We meet the women one by one, each story told patiently and to completion before moving onto the next. There are no flashbacks or fancy cuts— just each woman right where she is at 2 p.m., 4 p.m., or 6 p.m., as we stretch ever closer to the hour of execution. One is having her final meal. Others, their final visits. One particularly entrancing performance by Maya Eshet (Teen Wolf) is a woman experiencing her final shower. These women smile, crack jokes, and make their cellmates laugh. One is a gifted sound effects artist who takes requests from her neighbors to mimic a bird, a train, a siren. Another woman weeps as she finally meets her son for the first time, hours before her death.
“WHY?” is the big question for me. Why did they commit such unspeakable crimes? What were their motivations? And a more complicated question: why must they die for their sins, when so many others live long enough to heal, change, repent, renew, and then become a role model to others?
After screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ben-Asher came out and spoke to the small audience for a few minutes, explaining her process and many of the questions that drove her to make the movie. She mentioned to us that many folks at earlier screenings had to leave the theatre before the final vignette, which didn’t surprise me at all. Some have criticized Ben-Asher for how far the last scene actually goes, but for others, seeing the narrative through to its logical conclusion will be a necessary – and really impactful – part of the journey.
At the end of the day, this movie didn’t just leave me with thoughts on my own country’s penal system, but also important questions to ask myself. I am so lucky to have time and space for apology and reconciliation unlike these women portrayed in Dead Women Walking. Am I living with mercy? Am I choosing hope, even when it feels so dark in the world around me? I hope so. And wow, what a reminder.