“Would you give up 20 years to prove a stranger’s innocence?”
That’s the question that is asked and answered, at least for one person, in the docudrama The Wronged Man. The film is a made-for-television movie that appeared originally, and still does from time to time, on Lifetime.
Calvin Willis (Ali) is five years into a life sentence for the brutal rape of a child. He has been claiming from the beginning that he was innocent. Of course, that’s the theme song at pretty much any prison or jailhouse you might walk into. In this case, however, the song rings true. At least that’s what Janet Gregory (Ormond) believes. She is a paralegal for Graves Thomas (Vinson). She’s rattled when a capital case she has been working on leads to a phone call at her home by the condemned man just before his execution. So she’s not so sure that she wants to take on another seemingly hopeless case when Graves offers her Calvin Willis’s case. Fate soon steps in, and Graves is suddenly killed by a lightning strike while out on his boat. Janet takes a closer look at the file and soon sees a lot of problems with the conviction. Little did she know that it would begin a 20-year struggle to free the innocent man from prison.
There is no question that the American judicial system is far from perfect. When DNA became available to courtrooms across the land, it came as a double-edged sword. The technology made it easier to make sure that the guilty parties were put in prison and the innocent ones acquitted. But it also led to the uncovering of countless cases of injustice among those already serving time. There are plenty of those examples that could be explored in this kind of movie, but this one uniquely fits the demographics of Lifetime. You might expect that a film about such an injustice would focus on the man whose life was practically taken away from him. This film does not. It might as well have been called The Wronged Woman. While Ali is a fine actor, he doesn’t get anything more to do here than act sullen and get angry once or twice when things aren’t going quite so well. It’s the Janet character that we follow almost 24/7 as the years slip away and Calvin is still in prison.
While the film rightly attempts to accent her courage and determination to get at the truth, she doesn’t come off as a very likable character here. She neglects her boss, her son, and eventually a terminal ill third husband in her crusade to free Calvin. In the end, we realize that her son has lost as much of his life as Calvin has. It doesn’t help that Calvin himself is not portrayed in a good way much of the time. It’s hard to have the sympathy the film intends to evoke when you see him rage against Janet at first, and even a couple of times later. Certainly he has great reason to be bitter. I’m just not sure I would have much empathy when he takes it out on one of the few people who are trying to help him. In the end, the only truly sympathetic person in the whole film is Calvin’s grandmother, who tries herself to instill some respect in her grandson.
The character presentation is not the only problem with this film. Somehow the film fails on almost every level to capture the emotions behind the case. It plays out as a very rote depiction of facts with very little emotional play. Ali does provide some great moments, and we should have been given more of that than the rather less interesting life and times of Janet. The film makes its point, to be sure. But it falls flat, doing a certain amount of injustice itself, to a story that demanded better.
The Wronged Man is presented in its original Broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1. For some reason, perhaps intentional, this film looks much older than it is. It’s a brand new release that has the muted colors and particular texture of a film made in the 1970’s. Colors are quite muted even in the best of lighting. The movie takes place in the south, but all of the exteriors appear to be overcast and dark. It doesn’t help that black levels are anything but solid here.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is as dull as the image. You can hear the dialog fine, but there is no atmosphere or ambient life to this presentation.
Just a short making of feature that is too brief to cover anything of significance.
As I’ve already stated, the American judicial system is flawed. Still, it’s the best system in the world. Cases like Calvin’s are a tragedy, no question. I won’t argue that point at all. The dawn of DNA and other technological discoveries only act to improve upon that system. Most view this case as an example of a broken system. Fair enough. But the end of the story should speak to a system that is willing to explore its mistakes even after 20 years. Do you think that prisoners in China or Cuba are able to revisit 20-year-old crimes? I think not. I’m a cynic by nature. Just ask my wife, she’ll give you a book on the subject. But even I can’t avoid the good Calvin’s story says about our system, rather than what was bad 20 years ago. The film ends with an epilogue that tells us that Calvin never got an apology from the state. Sure, that would have been nice, but it was the witnesses who lied and a jury who believed them that convicted Calvin. I’d say apologies should start with them. Still, I suspect “it wouldn’t matter anyway”.