Capital punishment in the United States is viewed by most Europeans with horror and disbelief. A French production directed by Americans, “Made in the USA” is a strongly worded documentary about the execution of convicted murderer Odell Barnes that gives full expression to anti-death penalty sentiment. Director Solveig Anspach and co-author Cindy Babski shot the film in a standard-issue TV style ready-made for pubcaster audiences. In filmic terms, it is far less interesting than other attempts to deal with the subject (Swiss documaker Kaspar Kasics’ “Blue End,” for example) and its familiar look quickly erases it from memory.
A forceful opening statement by a black preacher sets the tone of horror at the state’s use of capital punishment as a form of justice. The execution of young Barnes, convicted for the 1989 murder of nurse Helen Bass, is described in detail. Interviews with defense attorneys and forensic experts positing Barnes’ innocence are intercut with the state prosecutor’s assertions of Barnes’ guilt.
Witnesses and possible witnesses are interviewed. General information is given; i.e., that half the men on death row are black or Latinos. Although the filmmakers’ hearts are in the right place, the presentation of clues and counterclues is ultimately rather confusing and leaves much uncertainty about Barnes’ guilt or innocence. A better strategy would have been to simply stress the inhumanity of lethal injection.
Pic attempts to widen its scope by bringing in newsreel footage of President George W. Bush, then Texas governor and vehemently pro-capital punishment, looking foolish as he insists that all the people executed in Texas have been guilty. The way the docu presents the connection between politics and the judicial system is chillingly factual.