A very clearly told, affecting and even maddeningly procedural-of-injustice tale, “Whitewash: The Clarence Brandley Story” is a film whose makers recognize that a low-key approach can be better than a high-pitched one. Laying out the fundamentals of its story — about an innocent African-American man who comes frighteningly close to execution — without too much haranguing, the piece wears its point of view blatantly but very comfortably. Written by Abby Mann, veteran specialist in these kinds of stories, and directed by Tony Bill (“Untamed Heart”), pic sometimes gets a bit languorous, but the overall emotional impact is a subdued yet deep one: There’s a sense that this is just the way things work, and it isn’t getting any easier to undo errors, even blatant ones, once an accusation has been made.
Pic begins and ends with some ominously toned narration over images of long-ago racial hate crimes in Texas. These serve to place “Whitewash” into the political context in which its creators want the story to be seen.
In 1980, a teenage girl was raped and murdered at her high school in Conroe, Texas. Within days, and with absurdly paltry evidence, Clarence Brandley, a supervising janitor, was arrested and charged with the crime. He had the key to the auditorium where the girl was found, had been working when the crime occurred and … well, that was it, other than the easily made inference that as a black man he presented an apparently easy target for the investigator under pressure to solve the crime in a hurry. In this case, that investigator is presented as a good old boy Texas Ranger (Beau Starr) who speaks seldom but seems very capable of intimidating people into saying whatever he wants to hear.
The good old boy nature of the system certainly is the dominant element of the milieu in which Brandley’s trials play out. Prosecutor and judges alike are all pals, and even when Brandley’s defense attorney (Chuck Shamata) thinks he’s identified a sympathetic judge, rulings continue to go blatantly against them, no blacks are allowed on the jury, and key evidence, particularly potentially exonerating hair samples, disappear. Those who possess information that would help Brandley are clearly under a variety of pressures to remain silent. Brandley, played with an appropriate mix of dignity and desperation by Courtney B. Vance, is sentenced to death.
The film is technically solid throughout, with nothing detracting from the central focus. Bill does a particularly good job of handling the large ensemble, keeping the various players distinct and allowing supporting actors, many from Canada where the film was shot, to have a chance to shine.
More and more people get involved in the case. First, Brandley’s brother convinces Houston activist Jew Don Boney (Eamonn Walker) to come to Conroe, and Boney gradually convinces others that political protest must be part of any effort, since it is politicians who are making decisions. Then there’s the young lawyer Mike De Guerin (Gil Bellows), protege of a big-time local defense attorney. But even though De Guerin gives it his full effort, headway is hard to come by.
Only with the arrival of Jim McCloskey (a persuasive Ron White), a man devoted to helping innocent folks on death row, and with the immediate approach of the execution date, do those who can really help Brandley step forward, leading to an emotional scene when the appeals judge finally, more than a decade after the initial arrest, issues a ruling that condemns the prosecution.
“Whitewash” isn’t a subtle film, but it presents its case with enough persuasive evidence to make its conclusions potent. Mann and Bill clearly use this tale to promote a more general view of the deep racism imbedded in the criminal justice system. Ironically, and very intentionally, the only person who uses the “n” word here is a character who actually ends up in a semi-heroic role, stepping forward at the last minute to reveal what really happened. The bigotry here is obvious, and yet deniable; it’s a passive rather than active racism, and more disturbingly real for being presented in that fashion.