Perhaps the best book written about a wrongly convicted man is Jack Olsen's Last Man Standing, a chronicle of the 27 years Geronimo Ji-Jaga Pratt spent caged in a California prison thanks to crooked FBI agents and Los Angeles cops. The narrative starts with Pratt's childhood in Louisiana, tracks his involvement in the Black Panther party and the decades he spent dwelling in the American gulag, and concludes with his triumphant release from prison thanks to the tireless lawyering of Stuart Hanlon and the late Johnnie Cochran. It's a fucking amazing read – meticulously researched yet hyper-engrossing, torturous and ultimately uplifting.
But I've always had the nagging sensation that Olsen terminated his book at the perfect moment: before the homecoming euphoria wore off and the challenges and mundanity of day-to-day life set in. Can a person truly get on with his or her life when the authorities have stolen the vast bulk of it?
It's the sort of question the makers of the documentary After Innocence put to eight men who were wrongfully sent to prison. The answers are, as a whole, tear-inducing – most of the men are grappling only semi-successfully with a callous world that's done little to make them whole. Prison, as one man says, "breaks down your soul. It breaks down everything about you. It takes your manhood. It takes your pride. It takes your decency."
They find themselves struggling with the basics. They have trouble building lasting relationships with lovers. They have trouble finding jobs – how do you explain a 10- or 20-year blank spot on your résumé?
And at times they have trouble simply experiencing emotions. In what you'd expect to be an emotional highpoint, the film documents the release of Wilton Dedge, who is freed from a Florida prison after wrongly serving 22 years for sexual battery and burglary. But on his big day, Dedge looks uneasy and half-zombiefied, as if his decades in the joint have simply siphoned the life from him. It's perhaps the most telling scene in a film filled with potent vignettes.
While tremendously powerful, After Innocence isn't flawless. At times the movie is a little talking head-ish, telling viewers what they should think rather than letting them witness the stumblings and successes of the exonerated men. Overall, though, it's a remarkable work – and one that deserves the widest audience possible. (A.C. Thompson)
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