It’s a scary time to be an American, when so many states are passing incredibly strict anti-abortion laws. None have gone into effect yet, but the possibility that Roe v. Wade may be overturned is very real. At the same time, capital punishment is legal in 30 different states. Plus so many people have died from preventable gun violence and absolutely nothing has been done to restrict access to the most deadly firearms. Anti-choice laws aren’t about saving unborn fetuses, they’re about controlling women and controlling access to our bodies. We haven’t covered these stories as much because we’re frankly sick about them. (We talk about it in the opener to our last podcast.) The Republicans cheated and stole elections, we’re getting our basic rights trampled on and things are becoming even worse in this country for women, people of color and immigrants.
Anyway Laura Dern is playing real life death row advocate Elizabeth Gilbert (not the granola self actualization author) in a new movie called Trial By Fire. Gilbert is a Houston playwright who corresponded with a death row inmate convicted of setting a fire in 1991 which killed his three children. She became convinced of his innocence and worked to exonerate him. (You can look it up but I’m not going to post spoilers, even though it’s a real life story.) The movie has some similarities to Dead Man Walking, the 1995 film with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. The AV Club, which has a new interview with Dern, explains how the case brings up the questionable ethics of the death penalty. Dern is a great advocate for this cause. She mentions how anti-choice laws are particularly hypocritical in states where women would face the death penalty for abortion. The Republicans are nothing if not hypocrites. I always enjoy reading her interviews because she doesn’t pull punches.
AVC: The Innocence Project has exonerated so many people. It’s a big topic to grapple with.
LD: You know, I learned so much. As someone who wanted to see capital punishment abolished, I thought I understood—I thought I understood it on an emotional, empathic level, but I didn’t know the facts. And once you learn the facts, you learn that the states that still have the death penalty are also the states with the highest murder rates. So already, there, it’s not working as a deterrent, if that’s what people think.
I’ve heard so many people say—and somehow put my head around thinking it was true—that “why should we keep these prisoners alive or take care of them when they’ve done these heinous acts?” Like, “Why should we pay for them to live for 50 years in prison?” and blah blah. And then you look at the facts around how much more–I mean, literally, in some cases, five times more—having the death penalty costs a state. So even when you’re arguing based on statistics, it’s just so clear that it is a horror that we still have capital punishment in this country. And the fact that I’m in California, and we have a governor who just suspended the death penalty in California, it’s a very exciting time to have this conversation. Not that the conversation hasn’t been going on for years and years.
AVC: Especially on a film like this, dealing with really heavy, politically charged issues, you could put yourself in a very dark place. But I imagine you just can’t live there all the time.
LD: This film was not an easy film to shoot. Most days we were in prison—active prisons—and there was a lot of heartbreak and a real palpable awareness of wanting it to matter, wanting it to keep the conversation going. It’s amazing how films and television and journalists’ efforts in the pieces they’ve written and newspapers’ efforts—all of these things bleed into a community, and outreach toward justice.
And now that this film is coming out within weeks of Governor Newsom’s opinion, and with the state of Texas using language like “thou shalt not kill” and talking about the moral obligation as a state to ensure that no one unjustly dies [referring to] unborn children, and these abortion laws where women will potentially be up for murder charges [for having an abortion] after six weeks. So thou shalt not kill… but you’re still going to have the death penalty? I mean, let’s get our morality straight. Let’s all get on the same page. What does it mean when we say, “Thou shalt not kill?”
Because what we’ve learned now is that there is a margin of human error, and the Innocence Project alone in its work has exonerated over 200 death row inmates. So we can get it wrong. Innocent people do die. And that’s why in Europe, where [the death penalty] is abolished, they say we have “blood courts” because we are killing people.
AVC: As you mentioned before, your style of acting was influenced by your parents, and you started acting pretty young. Was there ever a time in your life where you considered another career?
LD: No, not since childhood… we’re all learning is that there isn’t just one lane anymore. I’ve got a production company now with my producing partner, Jayme Lemons. I’ve directed, and I’m interested in continuing to support other stories as a producer, as a director—any area of storytelling. I will continue to explore and be excited about that. But in terms of another job job, no. I’m doing the ultimate job currently, which is raising teenagers, which I have no skill at. But they’re raising me as well.
I like what she said about how her teenagers are raising her too. I feel that way as well. I know that if I put that line in the title many more people would comment on this post. We need to talk about how these anti-choice laws are going to affect our children and their children, and we need to keep fighting and keep showing up. I’m saying this for myself too, because I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it and have been eating my feelings.
Thanks to everyone who joined Stop The Bans rallies yesterday.
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I'm grateful to everyone that showed up at the #stopthebans events around the country. But I have to say, I'm just fucking sad we have to be doing this. I'm so so sad. But the good news is I'm not tired. I actually never get tired. And also. I'm SO full of rage right now. So there's that. Donate and get involved no matter what city you live in. Cause bb, they're coming for ALL of our rights. THERE IS NO TRUE EQUALITY WITHOUT BODILY AUTONOMY. @prochoiceamerica @plannedparenthood @reprorights @womensmarch @yellowfund
photos credit: WENN