God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked?
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’ “ Luke 18:4-5
No one ever had a sister so devoted as Betty Ann Waters (Hillary Swank) was to Kenny (Sam Rockwell), that when he is wrongfully convicted of murder, she earns her G.E.D., completes college, and enters law school, solely for the purpose of being able to prove his innocence. And few perhaps were less deserving than Kenny, living a dissolute life with so many run-ins with the law that he turned one cop, Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo), into a personal enemy. Thus when a neighbor woman is murdered, the suspicion of the police immediately focuses upon the ne’er do well who lived near by.
Kenny is convicted and sent off to prison, with Betty Ann promising to do everything she can to overturn the conviction. The two had clung to each other through a difficult childhood that had found them removed from a dysfunctional home, separated from each other, and moved about from foster home to foster home. Kenny had sunk to a life of petty crime, Betty Ann knew, but she also believed wholeheartedly that her brother was incapable of murder. Thus, when his legal appeals are exhausted and the public defender assures her that nothing more can be done, and the despairing Kenny tries to kill himself, drop-out Betty Ann vows to finish her GED, graduate from college and enroll in law school.
While still a law student she uses Kenny’s case in her class work. And best of all fellow student Abra (Minnie Driver) befriends her, from thenceforth making Betty’s crusade her own. Betty Ann will need a friend, because she has devoted so much time and energy to Kenny and her education that she loses her husband and has to work hard to keep the affection of her two sons, who choose to live with their father rather than her. And that is just the beginning of her troubles!
Director Tony Goldwyn and his excellent cast bring to life Pamela Gray’s script, based on real life characters. Taking place over an 18-year period, Betty Ann and Kenny’s story is an incredible odyssey of the search for justice. It is marked by numerous triumphs, beginning with the finding of the box of evidence supposedly “lost” in the Massachusetts courthouse, and continuing right through to the final triumph. However, Betty Ann and Abra win one victory only to be confronted by another greater obstacle, and then another, and another. There are so many that even the widow in Jesus’ parable might have been tempted to give up. What a great story—though not all of it is told, the film neglecting to mention that a short while after his release from prison, Kenny died in a fall. Try as we and filmmakers might, real life is still full of Hamlet’s “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” that do not fit neatly into an uplifting Hollywood ending.
For reflection/Discussion Might contain spoilers.
1. What kind of a person is Kenny when we first meet him? Is it any wonder why the police suspect him of the crime? What does this reveal about the danger of assumptions?
2. We later learn that police officer Nancy Taylor coerced some of the witnesses to testify falsely against Kenny. What do you think her rationale was, apart from her personal enmity? That the end justifies the means?
3. What are the reasons that Betty Ann’s husband decides to leave her? Could she have better taken into consideration him and their two sons? (Compare this to Erin Brocovich’s relationship with her lover and children in the film named after her.)
4. How is Betty Ann’s crusade similar to Jesus’ call to take up the cross?
5. How is science becoming such a great aid in bringing about justice? What if Kenny had been sentenced to death for the murder?
6. How does the justice system both fail and succeed in the story? How does the film also show that the system depends upon just people in enacting it?
7. At what points does the film show the importance of companionship during rough times: for Kenny when he despairs in prison? For Betty Ann when she almost gives up? How is Abra a real person of grace? Who have been the “Abras” in your life?
8. How can we see this film as another example of the God who brings about justice, who is on the side of “the weak and the needy” ?