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'The Condemned' Reflects Real Life: People Are Disposable

Sally Kohn

Later this month, "The Condemned" will open in movie theaters nationwide. In the film, a wealthy television mogul buys ten inmates from death rows around the world. He puts them on an island to kill each other, promising that the last person alive after 30 hours will be set free. The killings that ensue are then broadcast live on the internet, where the mogul hopes to draw a bigger audience than the Super Bowl.

Frightening thing is, in real life, he probably would. One woman who saw a preview of the film said her friend asked if she'd pay money to watch this happen in real life. She said she wouldn't and her friend replied, "You are crazy. I would probably miss work to watch this in real life." In her blog entry, the woman concluded: "I knew that everyone else in the theatre probably had the same mind set as him. Only confirming the movie's premonition --- streaming live internet deaths would probably bring in more viewers than American Idol on elimination night."

Films and video games are getting more violent. One need only compare the most recent trigger-happy, thuggish James Bond in "Casino Royale" to his ancestors in "Dr. No" and "Octopussy" to get a glimpse of how extreme, cover-your-eyes violence has become standard fare in film. And don't even get me started on video games. I once played "Halo" with my partner's little brother. I had nightmares for days.

Perhaps it takes the unimaginable, ultimate violence of "The Condemned" to reveal our degraded "entertainment" for what it really is. The vast majority of violent films fall into the simplistic good guy versus bad guy paradigm, where the violence against the bad guy is only tolerated - or even celebrated - because he's a bad seed. In other words, only by devaluing the life of those who are killed or maimed can we call it "entertainment".

Yet the unintended brilliance of "The Condemned" may be that, in portraying a public hungry for live deaths, it holds up a mirror to real life. I fear many of us do think that those who have committed crimes, even violent crimes, are so worthless that it would be perfectly plausible to buy their lives for televised entertainment. They were going to die any way, right? Their lives were worthless. They were worthless.


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This attitude on our couches easily translates to an attitude in our courthouses. Why should we spend money on public defenders? Why should we release sex offenders after they've served their sentences? We act as though these are the bad characters, irredeemable, as if God scripted them to be bad from the start.

Recently, in Avon Park, Florida, a six-year-old girl named Desre'e Watson threw a temper tantrum in her kindergarten classroom. The police were called and handcuffed the little girl --- around her upper arms because her wrists were too slight --- and hauled her down to the county jail, where they took mug shots and booked her. Because Desre'e had kicked a teacher (resulting in some redness around the teacher's shin), the police charged the little girl with a felony. When I worked on juvenile defenses cases in New York City, I saw lots of similar cases, like when a young boy got mad at his teacher and stormed out of the room, bumping into her on the way out. The teacher, claiming assault, called the police and the boy was put in jail. Not insignificantly, Desre'e and the boy in this example are both black.

Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative of Alabama, which represents people on death row, often says, "I believe each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done in life." But the school children described above were quickly presumed all bad, as worthless and disposable as the inmates in "The Condemned". When they do something wrong, we're quick to forgive our family members and our friends. We would never lock up our own children or execute our own brothers and sisters. But when others do something - anything - wrong, we're quick to condemn. Particularly when those who do wrong are black or poor or both, our response isn't a helping hand and a second chance, but a prison cell or a hail of bullets or cuffs around the arms or execution.

What "The Condemned" illustrates is not its characters' inhumanity toward each other on film but our inhumanity toward each other in real life.

Sally Kohn is director of the New York-based Movement Vision Project, working with grassroots organizations across the United States to advance our shared values of family, community and humanity. She has interviewed progressive leaders across the country on their vision for the future.

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