Movie Review: Incendiary: The Willingham Case
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
"Incendiary: The Willingham Case," which opens today at the Violet Crown and will be expanding in the coming weeks to theaters around the country, puts Texas Gov. Rick Perry and his attitudes toward science in the political spotlight.
The documentary from Austin filmmakers Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. delves into the ongoing uproar over whether Texas executed an innocent man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a Corsicana house fire that killed his three children in 1991.
"Incendiary" suggests that it's a real possibility that Texas actually did execute an innocent man. But plenty of people, including Willingham's former attorney, as well as Willingham's ex-wife, firmly believe Willingham was guilty, as the filmmakers document.
Willingham was abusive and troubled, and he wasn't an easy man to like, according to "Incendiary." Yet in 2004, Perry declined to accept scientific conclusions that the evidence was flawed when the governor allowed the Willingham execution to go forward.
And Perry, who refers to Willingham as a monster, still declines to accept the science in the case — a stance that could possibly cause him problems in the race for the Republican presidential nomination of 2012.
"We feel validated for our initial decision to focus on the forensic science since we didn't know that approach would pan out when we started filming," says Mims, who teaches filmmaking at the University of Texas. He and Bailey, who was a student in one of his classes, began their project in 2009.
Mims and Bailey say that they see the case as raising serious questions about the legal system, especially since jurors and citizens believe that the evidence of arson in a murder case will be scientifically based.
As Mims warned Bailey early on in the project, they were facing a daunting task: videotaping arson experts, examining the evidence, attending hearings.
"But right when we started on the film in 2009, the governor disassembled the Texas Forensic Commission," says Bailey, referring to Perry's decision, during a gubernatorial re-election campaign, to replace three members of the commission and name a new chairman. The move came just before the commission was to hear testimony from arson expert Craig Beyler, who planned to detail how the forensic analysis used to convict Willingham was wrong.
"We were focusing on the science of the case," Bailey says, "but it turned into a political fiasco with the governor's actions."
Perry appointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as the new commission chairman, and Bradley repeatedly clashed with representatives of the Innocence Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to proving the innocence of people they believe were wrongly convicted. The Innocence Project has been a big player in the Willingham case, but Bradley has repeatedly said he believes Willingham was guilty. (Earlier this year, the Texas Senate declined to confirm Bradley as the head of the commission, citing his combative style.)
At one point in "Incendiary," Mims and Bailey travel with their cameras to Harlingen for a commission hearing, only to be turned away by Bradley, in apparent violation of the state's open meetings act.
Bailey and Mims promptly called up the attorney general's office, which persuaded Bradley to open the meeting. Bailey says it was as though the commission "hadn't ever received any public meeting training."
Through the use of visuals and extensive interviews, Mims and Bailey have turned the Willingham case into a gripping saga.
Since the movie premiered in March at the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival, Mims and Bailey have added an epilogue to "Incendiary," detailing recent developments in case.
After playing in Austin, "Incendiary" will open in New York. Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.
And Bailey and Mims say they feel lucky that their homegrown documentary might have an impact that goes far beyond Texas.
"It was a leap of faith that this was going to make a good narrative," Mims says.
Sometimes, faith pays off.