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 put to death in the United States 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. Access to her was severely restricted and finally cut off altogether.
To surmount this narrative hurdle and fill in the blanks for her 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, 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 the woman she was convicted for killing.
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 two years after Allen. Broomfield is most known for his film Kurt and Courtney, and he has also directed commercials for Volkswagen among other corporations. 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 involved detectives and officers could create a more sensationalized story with more than just one solved murder, and more victims would bring them more lucrative film and book deals they were solicited for.
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 want 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, old photographs of the people who faded from her increasingly troubled life. He had the opportunity to either reinforce Aileen’s known portrait or build on all that to recreate something anew.
Oklahoma State Department of Corrections’ death chamber regulations cut Wanda Jean off from filming before her last desperate final hours. We instead last witness her through her 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 last note for 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 ending to Wanda Jean’s person here on earth is absent in Aileen’s film. I think this is because Aileen’s films are 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 really, 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 Wanda Jean lowers into her grave.
Both Wanda Jean and Aileen came to rely upon promises of a heaven they never knew in real life to cope with their impending deaths. At 12, Wanda Jean 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, was stabbed in her left temple and lived with permanent brain damage from it. And, she was a lesbian and Black in the Bible Belt not too long after the end of Jim Crow. Within the tightknit community who saw Wanda Jean as a strange but harmless and essential member of it, her sexual orientation was no character flaw. However, once she “came out” to the world for 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 first child and forced her to adopt it out. He also beat Aileen according to several eyewitness accounts. By 10, she was addicted to cigarettes she traded sex to get. By 13, she was pregnant with another child who was pushed off on the same grandparents who had taken her in in. Then, she was banished to the woods near her home to live as a near she-wolf. Finally, after a brief marriage to a senior citizen and several job terminations, she took up the trade that would become her ultimate downfall: hitchhiking prostitution.
Given 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 a 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 stop by 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 were just to rob them and if those intentions alone 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 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 delirium, her fighting spirit in the face of armies who wanted her dead. Yet, Aileen’s final images Broomfield cultivated appear almost demonic. The portrayal is unflattering and cruelly-wrought. On the night before her execution, before the morning when 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 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 condemned Aileen to hell, and last but not least a mother who had not seen Aileen in decades. She asked 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 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.
So 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 let her down all her life to exploit her one last time. Aileen storms off in shackles, speaking words but silenced in the film. That is 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,” he concludes. There is no wonder of his psychiatric state to enter the sacred proximity of a condemned woman without plans to be a little more peaceful.
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 when delirium is in order, she quotes the Bible she depends on for sanity. She is last heard in the world asking her tearful and chainsmoking attorney to bring potato chips.
I suspect Aileen Wuornos, despite her troubling 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 filmic 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.