SXSW 2011 Review: INCENDIARY: THE WILLINGHAM CASE
A notorious case in the anti-death penalty movement, the life and death of Cameron Todd Willingham comes to the big screen in Steve Mims and Joe Bailey, Jr.’s INCENDIARY: THE WILLINGHAM CASE. The film takes a tight focus on the science verging on folklore that convicted Willingham of the arson murders of his three young daughters in Corsicana, Texas in 1991. Though the anti-death penalty movement has long used Willingham’s case as a prime example of an innocent man executed, the real meat of the story is the junk science of arson investigation that led to the belief that the fire that killed the Willingham girls was arson.
The Willingham case is a very complex one, the arson investigation making up just a part of the myriad issues and questions that went into the conviction and execution of Willingham. It seems that no one close to the case (or Willingham) deny that he was a tough customer, not a regular dude, too smart for his own good, a bad husband, an outsider. But the stigma attached to Willingham, a good old boy who liked to drink and listened to heavy metal music, is often pointed to as yet another contributing factor to his conviction. Paired up with a number of witnesses who swore he didn’t act as most would expect in the wake of the fire, and even a few who told authorities that he actually confessed to them, it’s no surprise that Willingham, even if he was innocent, didn’t stand much of a chance.
INCENDIARY quite clearly lays out its adversaries – from Texas governor Rick Perry, to the chair of the Texas Forensic Science Commission John Bradley, to Willingham’s original defense attorney David Martin. As they all make seemingly outrageous and frequently idiotic claims, they essentially dig their own graves. The more ridiculous they sound, the more the audience laughs at their mistakes and misdeeds. For a heavy film, it’s surprisingly crowd-pleasing, getting vocal reactions from people who may not even have entered the theater feeling strongly about any of its issues. It doesn’t hurt that Willingham’s side of things also features a number of big personalities with the brains to back their claims up, including arson experts Dr. Gerald Hurst and John Lentini and Barry Scheck from the Innocence Project.
Yet, for a documentary about such a hard subject matter, INCENDIARY doesn’t attempt to pile on the emotion. There are a number of scenes involving testimony from Willingham’s family that are packed with tears, but Bailey and Mims don’t mine those for a quick, emotional response. They’re simply presenting something that happened, even if it was nothing short of crushing. The film is a “science documentary,” focusing very precisely on the history of arson investigation, from its start as an “art” to its current state, a much more rigorous and scientifically investigable hard science.
And while the film’s focus on those forensic aspects of the case are interesting, well-executed, and incredibly researched, it’s hard to not feel let down by the film. As the film hints on all those other issues surrounding Willingham and the case, the viewer is left wanting still more. Who really decided that, by listening to heavy metal, Willingham was a Satanist? Why did his wife turn on him so quickly? What about that supposed execution day confession to his wife? How come no one noticed that Willingham’s defense attorney hated him? The film is not even a remotely complete look at a complex case, but what it does focus on is utterly fascinating and intensely involving, even if all the answers in the world still add up to a burnt-down house and a series of scorched lives.