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Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

slumdog_millionaireAfter my disappointing Cinemas, I finally got to see Slumdog Millionaire on Saturday.  It did not disappoint.  I’m a fan of Danny Boyle and you can’t help but be impressed by his ability to pull this film together into something extraordinary.  The movement among the different time lines of the story is deft and poignant.  Just as important, the pathos of tragedy never descends into bathos,  perhaps because the film makes clear that this is one more tragedy in a sea of millions of sad, desperate, impoverished lives.

In short, I liked the film and I recommend it, but …  You knew there was a but, didn’t you?

Boyle takes on the real Mumbai and carefully shows us both sides of modern India: call centers full of cleancut technologically savvy young Indians and the grinding, killing poverty that still rules so much of the world.  This is shocking to American audiences, but Boyle softens the blow by making his main characters beautiful.  He has to, because no matter how far Mumbai may be from Hollywood, it is Hollywood that still controls the purse strings, and beauty sells.

I have nothing against watching beautiful people on theater screens, but I try to remember  it’s fiction.  Spending two hours with lovely, tall Dev Patel with his mega-watt smile is a pleasure, but it’s  clear he wasn’t born and raised in a Mumbai slum, eking out an existence against a backdrop of neglect, abuse, hunger, and desperation.

indian_beggarSo watch the film and enjoy it, but keep in the back of your mind that this is not the face of India’s poor.  There are likely some children who are purposely crippled and disfigured to improve their ability to beg, but vast numbers more are crippled and disfigured by malnutrition and lack of medical care.  And those children need help, because they’re not ever going to win at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

Go see the movie, but consider skipping the popcorn and donating that money to Oxfam or some other worthwhile agency.

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As I  discovered when I started writing my novel about a death row inmate, it’s not possible to write an apolitical story that involves capital punishment.  Either my character was destined to remain unsympathetic, or I was going to make my readers sympathize with a murderer.  I chose the latter and in making my protagonist sympathetic, I found I’d inadvertently crafted an argument against the death penalty.  Perhaps there are people who can simultaneously sympathize with a person and nod approvingly at his execution, but I’m not one of them.  Yes, he’s crass and mostly without remorse and willing to kill again if it suits his purposes, but he is still human.  Painfully human.  Capable of being hurt.  Capable of being healed.  He’s not a monster, as inconvenient as that is.  Many death penalty supporters would like to believe that all murderers are monsters.  That would make killing them easier.  It would relieve us of our ambivalence and our uncertainty.

Having written that failed-to-be-apolitical novel, I find that the topic of the death penalty catches my eye in the news in a way it never did before.  The same is true for my friends and critique group members who read the early drafts.  I receive all kinds of emailed links on death penalty stories.

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

At the Polunsky Unit in Texas, one of the most notorious death rows in America, an inmate plucked out his right eye and ate it.  Under ordinary circumstances, I might cite this story as an example of the degradation of mental health that frequently occurs among segregated death row inmates.  One small detail of this news item forces me to file it under another heading: the frequency with which the mentally ill are convicted of capital crimes.  You see, this isn’t the first time Andre Thomas has done something like this.  In 2004, shortly after he was arrested for killing his wife, his son, and his wife’s infant daughter, he pulled out his other eye, but he did not eat it.  At the time, he was declared to be mentally competent to stand trial.  Now that he’s blinded himself and eaten his own eye, the Texas DOC is reconsidering its stance on whether he’s sane.

While the US is only fifth in the world for number of executions, Texas leads the pack at home, with 26 in 2007.  The other 49 states account for a mere 16 in the same time period.  For a while, it seemed like more states were backing away from the death penalty, but in December, after nearly half a century of rational, sane judicial rulings, New Hampshire has its first death row inmate.

Similarly, in little St. Kitts, they’ve performed their first execution–a hanging–in a decade.

Jamaica, which has had a 20-year hiatus from executions, is currently trying to clear the way to begin performing them again.  More importantly, they are trying to overthrow the Privy Council’s requirement that anyone convicted in a capital case be executed within five years or have their sentences commuted to life.  Essentially, Jamaica would like to go to the double punishment system currently at work in the US.

It doesn’t surprise me.  We are in the midst of a global recession, and for myriad reasons, as people run short of cash they also tend to run short of compassion.  People in poverty can’t afford mercy and as tycoons and swindlers make off with ill-gotten gains, the little people are desperate for even an ephemeral proof of justice.

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