SXSW Review: Incendiary: The Willingham Case



No matter what side of the death penalty issue you're on, the aptly-titled documentary Incendiary: The Willingham Case is a must-see for anyone who believes in government transparency and protecting civil rights.

In 1991, an incomprehensible tragedy happened in Corsicana, Texas; three small girls died in a house fire. In 2004, their father was executed for their murder. And in 2011, the provocative documentary Incendiary brings focus to the controversial investigation that not only led to a man's death but illuminated the intractability of the Texas state government. The Willingham case has been making headlines because the state of Texas -- and particularly Governor Rick Perry -- has vehemently refused to reconsider the case, even when they could have stayed the execution when reports of a flawed investigation came to light.

There is no presumption of guilt or innocence of Willingham in the movie, at least on the part of the filmmakers. Instead they condemn intractable officials by allowing those officials to speak for themselves, while illuminating both the original investigation and the forensic science that refutes it. Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. made a straightforward documentary that focuses on facts and publicly documented events and decisions. However, Incendiary is not an easy film to watch and not just because of the original crime.  The efforts made to support the original investigation are astounding, bringing into question not only the ethics of more than one individual and brings new, insidious meaning to "blind justice."

Incendiary: The Willingham Case doesn't merely summarize recent news, but delves into the two fundamental issues behind the controversy, including surprising revelations for those who haven't read everything on the subject. Willingham is not sanitized by the film; little time is spent on the man and his shortcomings.  Incendiary focuses on explaining arson investigation and the lack of science behind it until recent years featuring multiple experts whose expertise is made clear. By the halfway mark, the audience will understand the science behind "crazed" glass and more.  By the end of the film, a reasonable viewer will be outraged.  One only has to read the news to see that Perry has not only aggressively demonized Willingham but the independent experts who have reviewed the investigation. 

The most powerful act anyone can do is admit to a mistake; but the vulnerability exposed in admitting errors often causes some people -- and organizations -- to go to great lengths to avoid admitting an error was made. Incendiary: The Willingham Case is a disturbing reminder that simply having civil rights isn't enough, and that in some cases, disproving guilt isn't enough to overturn a conviction.