Special Guidelines for Viewing "Dead Man Walking"
A handout entitled "Guidelines for Book-Film Responses" has been distributed previously, and is relevant for your response to "Dead Man Walking." Because this film, like "Color of Fear," will keep coming back in discussions in the program, and because it raises so many issues central to the program, I am distributing these additional guidelines to assist our reaching a common focus in discussion.
1. In the effort to learn from everyone you meet, focus on the dialogical strengths of Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) in her several relationships in the film: (a) with the condemned murderer, Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), (b) with the two families of the victims, i.e. with Earl Delacroix and with the Percy family, (c) with her "boss," (the prison chaplain), and (d) with the workers in the prison.
2. When Sister Helen (the real one, not Susan Sarandon) visited this program several years ago, the question most on the minds of the students was how "real" she was, the extent to which we should feel challenged or inspired to do similar things as she. The students pressed her to express vulnerability (which she certainly does in the film): does she get depressed; and what does she do to relax? She replied that she does get depressed. She plays the clarinet to relax, she plays cards and drinks beer with her friends, and she prays.
What is your take on this? To what extent is Sister Helen a role model for you? Is she too much a "special case"? Too privileged by her (subsidized) status as a nun? Unreal? Too un-imitatible? Or are there practices and attitudes of hers that you want to incorporate into your life and your approach to dialogue? If so, name them. If not, explain why.
3. To what extent does Sister Helen have an "agenda" in her conversations with Matthew Poncelet? To what extent does that agenda overlap or coincide with Matthew's (who asked her to be his "spiritual advisor)? With that of her "boss"? In what ways does her agenda promote and/or inhibit dialogue?
4. Since we will shortly be focusing on the dialogue (or rather the absence of dialogue) about race in America, pay particular attention to the conversations between Sister Helen and Matthew about race. What can we learn from Sister Helen's approach? Does she (as some have charged) pull punches to avoid endangering her agenda? Compare Matthew and Ukiah David.
5. OKAY--now that you have disciplined yourself thoroughly to learn from Sister Helen, we can now ask if we must about the weaknesses and biases of the film that might lead you in an angry moment to throw it across the room. I hope those reasons do not include the semantic allergy that the lead figure is a nun. (That fact strains the credibility of many, including myself who still attends to wounds suffered in their tender care.) Or your defense of the death penalty. (The movie is not about opposition to the death penalty--if it were, the condemned man would have been innocent--it is about the pitfalls of selective compassion.)