an interview with lyon

Director/Co-producer Rachel Lyon and Co-producer Jim Lopes talk about race and media bias, choosing the cases profiled in "Race To Execution" and the death penalty.

What led you to make "Race To Execution"?

Rachel Lyon: "Race To Execution" was inspired by a murder case that my sister, Andrea Lyon, was handling on appeal for 15 years. It seemed as though then-Governor Ryan might act to exonerate her client, Madison Hobley. At the same time, amazing new research was being conducted about race and gender of juries in capital cases, and I had the initial inspiration to create a film that addresses the specific issue of race and the death penalty. I began filming during a conference on this topic at DePaul University in Chicago in 2003. Many key interviews were held there, sequestered away from other events. Authors, governors, researchers, media experts and practitioners provided a chilling account of the raw relationship that race plays in the death penalty. From the beginning, my sister and I agreed that complete editorial, creative and financial responsibility for the film would be entirely my responsibility, making the working relationship all the more special, and the integrity of the film possible.

As a filmmaker, I knew that capital punishment was not uncharted territory, yet it was clear that no one had ever made a film specifically about our racialized justice system in capital murder. The specific focus on race, and how race infects the entire death penalty system, would be the cornerstone of my documentary.

What impact do you hope your film will have?

Rachel: I hope that my film will expand the national conversation on capital punishment, away from issues of innocence, DNA and wrongful convictions, and bring focus towards understanding how race infects our legal system. Additionally, we shed light on how violent crime continues to be racialized in the media, where perpetuating negative stereotypes can influence the hearts and minds of potential jurors.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making "Race To Execution"?

Rachel: Murder, mayhem and the death penalty are always of interest to filmmakers and audiences, but people have a tough time facing the issue of race and the death penalty. Creating a film that combines critical facts and content as well as passionate human stories is tough as a director—it’s easier to follow one case. We grappled with a subject that needs “fresh eyes” which the filmmaker must provide for the viewer.

Also, all independent films are tough to fund, but "Race To Execution" was the most difficult film I have ever made. Everywhere I went, people were either frightened of the issue as being too controversial, or only of interest if the issue was innocence. Yet, race is the elephant in the living room: race is the single greatest factor in who lives and who dies—I knew this story needed to be told and it took hundreds of individuals to donate to make it happen.

Jim Lopes: My involvement in the film evolved over time, from my discussing it with an old friend and colleague to my becoming a producer. The challenges to me were: 1) financing the film and outreach; and 2) focusing the film. We have two complex human stories here interwoven around a lot of legal facts and statistics. As a lawyer, I had to step out of myself and ask if what was being said would be understood by the audience or if it was too legalistic. I think Rachel and Chris did a great job with the various stories and arguments.

How did you choose the cases profiled in the film?

Rachel: The Chicago story was the inspiration of the film, so we knew we would tell the tale of Madison Hobley, former Governor Ryan’s remarkable decision and what happens when an innocent man is on death row. The need to look at the death penalty in the North as well as the South became clearer as I learned more about the issue. Finding Robert Tarver’s story took a journey to Alabama, a look at many death penalty cases and long days in the field. In both cases, the race of the jury, along with the poignant personal stories, assisted me in making the decision.

What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?

Rachel: There is always so much that has to fall to the editing room floor. For example, though we raise the issue of how minorities are portrayed in the media, the issue is huge, complex and could support an entire film. Also, the history leading up to the “modern death penalty” is fascinating and impacts our current dilemmas. Always there is more than one can say in an hour, yet it also helps to have time restrictions—you have to hone your story down to the bone. Keeping the core and letting go of some of the precious pearls that do not really forward the story is half of the battle to edit a strong film.

Jim: I would have liked to explore the experiences of other ethnic minority groups in America. For example, there are studies about how people of different racial groups really cannot distinguish members of other racial groups. It’s not prejudice or bias. It is a function of unfamiliarity. I also would have liked to explore how much is a function of class and economics rather than race. For example, any discussion about quality of counsel is really a discussion of class not race. Money talks.

What did you want to achieve with your film?

Rachel: I came into this film not knowing much about the death penalty. What I have found out is extremely moving and I hope makes people question some of their own biases and beliefs. I know my own have been deeply challenged.

Jim: We hope to stimulate dialogue and encourage people to examine their own beliefs. I am not opposed to the death penalty and this film hasn’t changed my mind. But it has made me have a lot of conversations about the death penalty with people with various perspectives.

What has the audience response been so far?

Rachel: It’s always hard to be objective about your own film, but response has been very strong. People feel surprised by the real facts about the impact of race and the severe effect of media on racial bias.

Jim: The audience response has been extremely positive. Most people are stunned by the statistics and moved by the human stories. Also, some people have been taken aback at how insidious the media is in shaping our perceptions of each other and how that impacts people’s lives.

When did filming conclude? Are there any updates regarding the people featured in the film and what they have been doing since then?

Rachel: There are many new updates about the death penalty. It seems it is more in the news today than ever before. 

We filmed for three years, in Chicago, Alabama, New York and Georgia. Our final shoot was in Chicago this past May. The Chicago police, who allegedly tortured false confessions to obtain convictions, were involved in legal action there. Madison Hobley’s case against these policemen and the city of Chicago is in process.

Unfortunately, death row in Illinois is filling up again, with 10 new people, nine of whom are minorities.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Rachel: This is a tough field, but there is always a compelling story, an amazing tale to tell. Being a founding member of San Francisco and Chicago Women in Film, it’s great to see how far we’ve come… and how far there is to go from here. I also enjoy teaching a new generation about handling media responsibly.

Jim: I am an entertainment and media lawyer. This film was compelling. Balancing this with income-producing obligations is often difficult.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

Rachel: I am a die-hard PBS supporter. We have the smallest amount of public funding for film of any major developed nation. Having an independent voice is crucial to keeping our country a democracy. All of these goals are supported by showing our work on PBS, my first choice for broadcast.

What are your three favorite films?

Rachel: The Godfather I and II, When We Were Kings, Bladerunner

Jim: Spartacus, Lord of the Rings trilogy, Judgment at Nuremburg

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Rachel: You are your strongest advocate. Check out other films similar to your idea. Spend time reading about the subject, time period, whatever research will strengthen what you say and what you write. Be organized, persistent and brief. People will listen to a new filmmaker, but not for long. Ask the tough questions—be open to the natural cooperative nature of filmmaking, while keeping your inner vision of your film strong, yet flexible.

Jim: Keep your perspective and realize that as brilliant as your idea may be it may not appear so to everyone you encounter along the way. Be prepared for rejection because it will be followed by someone who understands or shares your vision.

What sparks your creativity?

Rachel: I find inspiration in books, articles, images, innovative ideals, political movements, and above all, urgent social issues that inform what I will commit to for many years of my life. The combination of cutting-edge filmmaking and social and environmental issues form the edge of inspiration for me.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

Rachel: Connectivity and a strong sense of willingness to “take it on.” Whether that “creative food” comes to you at a yoga retreat, a rally, in a remote village in Tibet or down the street in your town, find something that provides you with the energy to “dream a film into life.”