In 2002, Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus was forced to end her documentary on the last three months of Oklahoman Wanda Jean Allen, a twice-convicted murderer. Allen was the sixth woman in the United States to be put to death after the 1977 reinstatement of the death penalty. The Execution of Wanda Jean depicts the frantic and pathetic clemency pursuit in the Bible Belt, as it is primarily through the eyes of Allen’s clemency lawyer Steve Presson. When Garbus began filming, Allen was three months from her death. The access to her was severely restricted and finally cut off altogether.
To surmount this narrative hurdle and fill in the blanks for its subject, Garbus relies upon multiple stories around this tragedy. Wanda Jean’s mother is the last character we see in the film: she is scratching at Allen’s corpse, under its pink covers, in her casket ready to go down. Along with the story of Allen’s lawyer David Presson, Garbus portrays perspectives of two families who appear admirably congenial and united throughout this death penalty process: Wanda Jean’s large family and the family of Gloria Jean Leathers, Allen’s former lover and her final victim.
Over the course of ten years, British filmmaker Nick Broomfield shot footage to document Floridian Aileen Wuornos. Wuornos, America’s first female “serial killer,” died by lethal injection nearly two years after Allen. Broomfield is most known for his film Kurt and Courtney, and he has also directed commercials for Volkswagen among other corporation. He premiered Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer in 2003. His 1994 film, Aileen: The Selling of a Serial Killer, depicts the stretch that a Floridian police department tolerated and even orchestrated Aileen’s killing spree. The reason? The detectives and officers involved in the story would create a more sensationalized story than one solved murder, and more victims would bring more lucrative film and book deals for them to talk about.
I am unclear what Broomfield was doing to change that when he revisited the story of a convicted murderer who appears to regard him as her friend, and whom I wanted to believe he regarded the same way. These people knew each other over a long expanse of time. However, due to the lack of close family Aileen could count, the filmmaker culled the content of her biopic from tabloidish sources: old news reports, heated courtroom footage, photographs of the human ghosts who faded from her increasingly troubled life. He had the opportunity to either reinforce the known portrait or recreate Aileen anew.
Oklahoma State Department of Corrections’ death chamber regulations cut Wanda Jean off from visual filming before her last desperate final hours. We instead last witness her through a crackled telephone voice. The last time the wider public would ever hear from or know Wanda Jean, she is asking her lawyer for a package of potato chips. In their next conversation, the phone goes dead as Presson updates her on a Supreme Court appeal that he, by now, understands as only a tragiocomic final gesture to his professional role as Allen’s lawyer. For now, they are friends. The patriarchal lens through which Presson’s privileged perspective fuels the story is aggravating and expected. But the measure of dignity in this anti-climactic ending to Wanda’s impression to us here on earth is absent in Aileen’s film–directed by a foreign man.
To say Wanda Jean’s film benefited from a feminine touch is an understatement. Garbus remains invisible. She allows the people she portrays to dictate the sentiments of the story, its subject and its end result. The only interruption to remind audiences that we watch an edited, professional piece of work comes in title inclusions that ground us in necessary facts. Garbus does not focus on trial footage. The only hint this nightmare event has a past is the film’s opening scene; Wanda Jean sits in front of surveillance glass in an Oklahoma Police Department, with a disposition of full cooperation whilst she confesses to shooting her lover in a dispute earlier that day. She is shattered, inconsolable, with the news that her lover was not only hurt but killed–and she now faces a conviction for it. From there, we enter into a movie about family, friends, spirituality, gospel and dance until her final breaths are taken.
Both Wanda Jean and Aileen came to rely upon the promises of a heaven they never knew in real life in order to cope with their impending deaths. At 12, Wanda was knocked unconscious by a truck. By 13, she was a professional shoplifter. She stole food to feed a family her father abandoned and her mother drank through the upbringings of. By 15, she had been stabbed in her left temple and coped with permanent brain damage from it. And, she was a lesbian Black woman in the Bible Belt. There, such a relationship could flourish among the tightknit community who saw Wanda as a strange but harmless and essential member of it. However, once she “came out” to the world due to the murder of a woman she loved, her publicized sexual orientation became damning in her appeals for mercy.
Aileen’s similar path to the arms of another woman was even more merciless. Her mother abandoned her nearly at her birth. Aileen and a brother came to live with her grandparents under a patriarch who reportedly fathered her adopted-out child, and who also beat her according to several eyewitness accounts. By 10, she had become addicted to cigarettes she traded sex to get. By 13, she was pregnant with another child that was pushed off on the same grandparents who had taken her in in. Then, she was banished into the woods near her home to live as a near she-wolf. Finally, after a brief marriage to a senior citizen man and several job terminations, she took up the trade that would become her ultimate downfall: hitchhiking prostitution.
Given that Broomfield’s voice is heard in his two films about Aileen more than her own voice is, it is no wonder how a woman living in this world where men told her stories found sanctuary in the arms of another woman. Aileen’s instant love affair with Tyria Moore promised a more traditional life, but instead it led to her death. According to Aileen, her prostitution picked up in order to support the two of them. The increased frequency of her work led to increased interactions with men who were arguably more imbalanced than she was: many of her “johns” were professional homeowners and fathers with intact marriages. They took time from those jobs, homes, children and wives to stopby the side of the road to pick up an unknown, wandering female for sex in the middle of the nights. In less than two years, Aileen had shot and killed seven of these pleasure seekers. She claimed they all tried to rape or rob her. There is still controversy as to whether her motives had always been to rob them and that her intentions led to the violence. But does it matter? There is bound to be trouble when a chronically homeless and neglected woman meets up with a man who has much better options, but who neglects those options in favor of such an eerie encounter. The eruptions between these two types of psyches are nearly destined to be fatal.
Like Wanda Jean, Aileen left us a fruitful legacy in spite of her scandalous life: her naked soul on film, her generous offering of her sorrow, her disintegration into hopeful delerium, her fighting spirit in the face of armies who wanted her dead. Yet, the final images Broomfield cultivates of her could be falsely contextualized as demonic. The images and portrayal are unflattering and cruelly-wrought. On the night before her execution, when on the morning before Aileen will have no taste for a last meal, Broomfield was given a privilege Garbus got cut off from a week before Wanda’s execution: to not only see Aileen, but to interview her in her dying hours.
Aileen’s documentary is more of a circus of performance for characters from a horror novel: the female lover she killed to feed but who tricked her into confessing, her initial attorney who smoked seven joints the day of her plea for the murders, the brother who had sex with her and the grandfather who beat her, the courtroom officials who sat still while Aileen spit and cursed at the juries, the victims’ family members who ignored their men’s nighttime tendencies but who condemned Aileen to hell, and last but not least, a mother who had not seen Aileen in decades. She could only ask the maker of this show: “Do you know when the date is, of the execution?” Broomfield answered: “I think it’s soon.” Think?
Who were all these so unconcerned people who swirled around this one woman, who would have remained just as unknown as the rest like her were it not for their interviews, book deal attempts and starring roles in the documentary films made about her? And how do we wind up with the person who is finally filming her not even knowing when her execution is, but finding out just in time to have a final interview for his film?
In the final interview, Aileen Wuornos comes out to Broomfield smiling, talking of God, and wandering into her own opinions that she was tortured in prison and set up to be a killer. She will die in about twelve hours. She was probably more stressed than the people behind the camera, with every thought she could have possibly ever had or never would have racing to push itself out of her mouth. But the director cuts short the opinions of this woman who only has minutes to speak, while he has a lifetime. He does push to know if she is “okay” and if she is “prepared.” But, it does not seem to be enough of a “story” when she answers that she is and she will soon meet the angels.
Broomfield interrupts her. He mentions her mother he has just visited (whom Aileen calls a “whore). He stirs her into madness with litigation-like questions that hammer at the roots of her killing sprees. A woman who had appeared nervous, but peaceful, bursts into rant and wild eyes when she is reminded of her cases and the men she has killed. “There had to be something inside of you that made you kill,” Broomfield opines. To which Aileen finally shouts: “You are lost, Nick.” Her last, and probably only, display of agency comes when she just finally tells Broomfield, in a sad and pitiful tone: “We’re going to have to end this interview Nick.”
It was never an interview from the start. It appeared to be a final attempt for the men who had let her down all her life to exploit her one last time. Aileen storms off in shackles, speaking words but silenced. Because Broomfield’s omniscient voiceover decides the truth of it all: “It is a wonder she had just passed the psychiatric tests the day before.”
I have never been more clear on the power of women telling women’s stories until the occasion to compare these two films. We do witness Wanda Jean’s story with a directorial agenda beyond her: to demystify the legal gymnastics which are largely futile in cases like this, and to demonstrate the outstanding number of people paid to carry out processes that last 21 minutes–the time it took for Wanda Jean Allen to officially pass away.
But, at the heart of The Execution of Wanda Jean, there is the story of a woman who can teach us all a lot about the power of humility for our most catastrophic human errors. Wanda Jean dies strong. Her primary concerns are the morales and appetites of her visitors and team. She is mostly supportive of others at all times, except when she fades to a near whisper whilst begging a clemency board for her life. At times delerium is in order, she quotes the Bible she depends on for sanity. She is last heard in the world asking for her tearful and chainsmoking attorney for chips.
I suspect Aileen Wuornos, despite her barbaric life and crimes, was just as strong. Her humor sparkles throughout the film footage collected on her. Her crooked teeth don’t hide behind her generous and easy smiles. In her last interview, she mostly wants to talk about Jesus, or “sailing with the Rock” as part of her last words were. But it is hard to remember that from this filmmic tribute. With Broomfield’s annoying narration (Garbus does not present in her film at all), a man is on a mission with a camera. Aileen is just a co-passenger, riding along in coach while the filmmaker rides in first class. And he wants to talk about her abuse, her abuses and her killing. They all do.
That Aileen winds up screaming curses on all of society by the end of her last chance to show her face to a larger world is most likely because a man directed her into it.