by Katie Daniels
Although Robsham Theater was packed with students and faculty, it was completely silent. Sr. Helen Prejean was unperturbed. “This happens every time we show the movie,” she explained softly. She surveyed the audience and asked, “Do you think the film brought you over to both sides? Do you think you saw both sides of the suffering?”
On Thursday, October 9, the Church in the 21st Century Center screened the powerful Oscar winning film Dead Man Walking in Robsham Theater. Afterwards, Sr. Helen Prejean spoke about her experience making the film and counseling death row inmates. As a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Sr. Helen was working in inner city New Orleans when she was asked to be the spiritual advisor to a death row inmate in Angola prison. She agreed, and after witnessing his execution, wrote an account of her experiences in the book Dead Man Walking.
The movie adaptation of the book, written and directed by Tim Robbins, stars Susan Sarandon as Sr. Helen and Sean Penn as death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Roger Ebert described the movie as “a film that ruins us for other films,” because the movie avoids the conventional Hollywood clichés. Matthew Poncelet is not an innocent man on death row. He is truly guilty of rape and of murder. But more remarkably, the film avoids spiritual clichés in its portrayal of Sister Helen. Even as she begins to realize that Poncelet is in fact guilty, she never wavers in her conviction that God loves even the greatest sinners among us.
Perhaps the reason the movie avoids clichés is that it does not shy away from the complex and painful relationships surrounding Poncelet’s crime. Over the course of the film, Prejean visits both of the murder victims’ families, as well as Poncelet’s own mother and younger brothers. She witnesses the pain and anger both sides feel, even as she continues to visit Poncelet in prison. She also bears the full force of the families’ incomprehension when they question how she can counsel the man who has torn their lives apart.
For the real life Sister Helen, this complexity is the reason that art is so necessary. In her talk after the movie, she explained, “There is a difference between art and propaganda. Art brings you over to both sides of the suffering.” Understanding this suffering, she suggests, is necessary in a culture that sees the death penalty in black and white. “Most people don’t reflect deeply on the death penalty,” she said. “Our culture says choose one side or the other. People see forgiveness as weak.”
Her experience working with death row inmates proved to her how necessary it is to start a dialogue. As Matthew Poncelet’s lawyer says before his client’s parole hearing, “It’s easy to kill a monster; it’s hard to kill a human being.” For Sr. Helen, this realization prompted a new direction to her vocation. “I’ve been a witness,” she said. “Now I’ve got to bring the message to the people so they can reflect.”
And reflect they did. Audience members slowly began to cluster around the microphones and ask Sr. Helen questions. “How were you able to feel compassion?” “What do you feel for these men?” “Did you feel like you were being weak?” Sr. Helen grounded her answers in that quiet, deep faith that Tim Robbins so subtly captured in his movie. “Human beings are more than the worst act in their lives,” she repeated again and again. “Even those who have done a terrible thing have dignity.”