Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of any photographic material used unless otherwise noted. This blog is intended for purposes of film criticism, commentary, and humor. If you wish to start this journey from the beginning, start with the prologue here.
Konichiwa, pardner. I am the Wild West Samurai’s raging bile duct.
Today, I will be reviewing a 1999 film called Life.
What’s the story? It’s about the lives of two black men who were framed for a murder they didn’t commit in 1932 by a racist white sheriff and sentenced to life in prison at the Mississippi State Penitentiary, more infamously referred to as Parchman Farm.
For a brief warm-up, after the Civil War ended in 1865, slavery was… technically abolished, but it didn’t really go away. The American South was dependent on slavery like a circus clown is dependent on alcohol. You can take away the bottle and the bar along with it, but you know he’s just gonna make hooch in the bathtub.
At first, the South tried placing freed black slaves under “apprenticeships.” You see, it wasn’t slavery, it was just forcing people to perform hard manual labor against their will without pay. They weren’t property, they were just people whose rights were greatly limited under the benevolent supervision of plantation owners. Orwell himself would have marveled at the audacity of the doublespeak involved.
So, like a toddler put in timeout for misbehaving, the South was put under military occupation until she learned to behave herself and treat black people like actual human beings. The South stubbornly refused, eventually wearing the North down until the military was withdrawn in the 1870s.
During this time, this new system called convict leasing came about due to a loophole in the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery:
Once the South realized she could simply throw black people back into slavery by saying they had committed crimes, freed slaves and their descendants were being charged by the thousands with crimes as minor as vagrancy or loitering, with the foreknowledge almost all wouldn’t be able to pay their fines, and then leased to plantation owners and mine owners who paid those fines in exchange for years of free labor. In some ways, this system was worse than antebellum slavery. For one thing, slaves in the pre-Civil War South were usually expensive investments their owners would beat but still wanted to keep alive as long as possible to make their investments worth the expense. Convicts, on the other hand, were leased so cheaply, they could be worked to death in a short amount of time and easily replaced just as cheaply. For another thing, this form of slavery met with less resistance due to the stigma of criminality attached. Whereas abolitionist propaganda made a fairly effective case that slaves were victims being exploited, arguing that criminals who, in society’s eyes, deserve brutal punishment are being exploited and victimized is a much harder case to make.
Don’t believe me? Just ask a random person on the street, “What do you feel should be done with rapists?” Take a wild guess at the general consensus. And for all that talk about what criminals deserve if only pesky things like due process and human rights wouldn’t get in the way, Americans are practically amnesiac about what that would actually be like, considering its dark past where nothing sold out a ropemaker’s stock faster than an allegation a white woman had been raped by-
Right, right. So, what does all this have to do with Parchman Farm?
Well, in 1894, the state of Mississippi made convict leasing technically illegal, although it still remained in common practice until at least the 1940s. As a result, Mississippi couldn’t just lease convicts to private parties anymore. So, in 1901, the state bought a cotton plantation – because, of fucking course – and converted it into what would become the Mississippi State Penitentiary. It was little better than the convict leasing system it was supposed to replace, since forcing men to work twelve-hour days for free for a private enterprise somehow doesn’t strike me as that much different from forcing men to work twelve-hour days for free for the state.
This is where our two main characters are sent to in 1932. Our main characters are… played by Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence?
… And the film is a comedy?
… odd choice of genre, but it coooouuuuld work? Maybe? Let’s find out. Continue reading