The Execution of Wanda Jean is a multilayered documentary about the last days of Wanda Jean Allen, a woman in her early 40s who is about to be executed by the state of Oklahoma. While this documentary could easily veer into a one-note message against the death penalty and the American criminal justice system as a whole, instead it raises much darker, newer questions.
For instance, should women be treated differently by the legal system than men, especially when it comes to execution? If you remember, the execution of Texas resident Karla Faye Tucker, who committed a brutal murder while high on drugs but found religion in prison, raised similar arguments. Wanda Jean's plight was unique in that she was to be the first African-American female to be executed in the U.S. for over 50 years.
Other questions raised by this film include those of sexuality and social class. Wanda Jean's victim was her female lover, although the fact that Wanda Jean was a lesbian is not given much attention in the 90-minute running time of the documentary. Wanda Jean comes from a very poor family, with few financial means of her own, begging the argument that is made frequently by anti-death penalty advocates that wealthy people rarely if ever face execution.
Finally, and by far the most troubling, question of Wanda Jean's circumstances is the fact that she was borderline mentally retarded; this fact muddied the question of her intent at the time the murder was committed (and to make it very clear: there is no doubt raised that she did in fact commit the crime, as well as others before it). As it is pointed out, in some states, intent can be formed seconds before a murder; it is not necessary for attorneys to prove that any elaborate plans preceded the crime. But the fact that Wanda Jean was at best functioning only marginally raised important questions about the moral and ethical implications about her execution.
Director Liz Garbus uses many different perspectives in describing the crime and its effect on two shattered families. Wanda Jean's victim's family, including her sister and her daughter, give very different viewpoints on what they feel should happen to Wanda Jean. Her own family is distraught at the looming prospect of her execution, and their heartbreaking prayer vigils are charged with emotion and pain. Garbus quietly captures all of this, allowing those involved to speak for themselves. Wanda Jean's own perspective is at once simple and complex, and viewers have the opportunity to truly hear her, as she is given much camera time.
Regardless of the questions asked, to Garbus's credit, she allows the viewers to make up their own minds rather than making it up for them. While this documentary does not give any easy answers, and it may well raise more questions in your mind than it answers, there is no doubt that it will leave you thinking long after its conclusion.
Keeping in mind that this is a documentary, and those who create them are often more focused on the story they are telling rather than the picture quality, the quality of this particular disc is adequate. Having watch this film both on HBO and on disc, I can attest that there is no significant improvement since the film's transfer onto DVD.
The sound quality, as with the picture, is just adequate. At times, especially during courtroom scenes, an echo can be heard, but given the fact that the state of Oklahoma most likely did not care how good the sound quality of the documentary would be, it is unlikely producers had much to work with during scenes such as these.
There is only one extra on this disc, which is a retrospective of the career of Liz Garbus, who has been involved in some terrific documentaries, especially Girlhood, which is also a look at the criminal justice system, this time as it applies to juveniles. Another high-profile documentary she produced was The Farm: Angola, USA.
It would have been nice to see a featurette about what has happened to the principal characters who appeared in The Execution of Wanda Jean, but given the limited budgets with which producers have to work, perhaps it was not financially feasible.
This documentary is worthy of your time. If you enjoy it, also consider another justice-themed documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning, and be sure to check out Garbus's Girlhood.