Christopher Scott, Johnnie Lindsey and Steven Phillips are three Texans exonerated after false convictions and imprisonment for violent crimes — some of them serving more than a quarter-century before their release.
Together, this trio channels its rage and resentment into righteousness — starting a detective agency to investigate claims of other prisoners who insist they also didn’t do it. They wear flashy suits and wide-brimmed hats, and hold their meetings at a barbecue restaurant advertising beer for breakfast.
Their searches lead them down roads untraveled for decades, seeking more-likely suspects of whom they quip, “Looking for Don Wallace is like looking for a dead bird in tall grass. You can’t see him, but you can smell him.”
Down to its title, True Conviction sounds like a primetime procedural, coming this fall to CBS (because you know it would be on CBS). And at 84 minutes, the film certainly runs the pace of a two-hour pilot sans commercials. In actuality, director Jamie Meltzer’s film is a new player in a resurgence of true-crime entertainment — podcasts like Serial, Netflix sensations like Making a Murderer, Emmy-raking cable series like American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.
So eager is Meltzer to carve out a new piece from this profitable pie that he slides a serving fork under the crust altogether — all topping, no foundation. And while there are occasional moments of legitimate outrage and heartbreak to be found, True Conviction too often buries admirable authenticity, human foibles and social commentary under forced storytelling artifice.
It also bites off too much for 84 minutes — the backstories of its three leads, the present-day struggles they face, two major cases they investigate and animated reenactments of most of the crimes at hand.
In shaping their story, Meltzer and co-writer Jeff Gilbert gloss over many fascinating details of how Scott, Lindsey and Phillips came to found their organization. Or fund it. Or form connections to the necessary experts they’d need beyond the sympathetically bent ears of people like them who’d been in their potential clients’ shoes.
One presumes the money stems from a million-dollar settlement Phillips receives after his release, but that’s never truly clear. (Also left muddy is where all of Phillips’ money has gone after an unexpected setback forces him to sell off his possessions.)
Most of all, True Conviction never answers why seemingly no one besides these three men has done anything in nearly a half-century to address disproportional false convictions in Dallas County. All three men were sentenced for crimes involving sexual assault, and other than brief anecdotal mention of difficulty to get DNA testing, no experts offer explanations as to the official bureaucratic roadblocks.
Where True Conviction does get it right on that score, oddly enough for a film convinced with hard evidence, is in implication and inference. Scott, Lindsey and Phillips confront one prosecutor at their “office,” and he has the hubris to insist that if anyone is in prison, it’s because God wills it. But even that is more of a gotcha moment than a springboard to sear this issue of the criminal justice system in which barbed biblical (and, yes, racist) language trumps impartial logic.
True Conviction also compels in showing the tribulations of these men’s lives save the comparatively docile Lindsey, as close to a real-life Lester Freeman from The Wire as is possible. The paterfamilias of three generations, Scott feels guilt at not being there for his own son and fears the cycle will continue to perpetuate. Meanwhile, all three address the bad optics after one of them is arrested in the film’s finest scene — a raw confrontation of anger, aggression and, ultimately, tough love for a tough situation.
Police and prosecutors prioritizing the pinning of crimes on anyone — more often than not, African-Americans — as long as it’s fast is a story of deep social import. It’s disappointing that True Conviction is so frustratingly superficial … which means it probably is coming to CBS in some way, shape or form soon enough.
True Conviction is a Documentary Feature Finalist at the 2017 Heartland Film Festival and will be presented at:
- 7:45 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 19 at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
- 2:45 p.m., Friday, Oct. 20 at AMC Castleton Square 14
- 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 21 at AMC Castleton Square 14
- 1:30 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 22 at AMC Castleton Square 14
Tickets are available at http://heartlandfilm.org/festival/tickets/, by calling 1-866-HFF-1010 or at the box office at the time of the screening.
Director and co-writer Jamie Meltzer will be in attendance at the festival.