The Killing Yard
review by Cynthia Fuchs, 21 September 2001

With you as the hero

Attica. For many people, the word is most familiar as the chant initiated by Al Pacino's frantic bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon. But Attica is most definitely a place, the infamous New York State Penitentiary. And it most definitely has a history, one that is painful, complex, and very hard to sort out, in large part because the state government has sealed all records concerning the events until 2026.

The story of Attica begins long before 9 September 1971, when 1200 inmates staged an uprising to protest impossibly hard conditions. Correctly told, it would include accounts of the terrible conditions that drove the men to fight back with such fervor and determination. But most people first heard of Attica when, on that fateful day, the inmates took over "D" yard, and took 39 guards as hostages, in order to prompt negotiations with State officials, via an impartial team composed of journalists, clergy, lawyers, and activists. Four days later, when negotiations broke down, Governor Rockefeller ordered policemen to retake the prison; they fired some 2200 rounds in six minutes, leaving thirty-nine people dead and eighty wounded. When it came out that ten of the dead were guards, the State told the press that inmates had slashed their throats. Needless to say, when it came time for the inmates to go to trial for their apparent crimes, they faced a hostile jury pool. What's more, they faced unfair and illegal tactics by New York's prosecuting and district attorneys.

Euzhan (A Dry White Season) Palcy's The Killing Yard recounts one of these trials, that of Shango Bahati Kakawama (Morris Chestnut, in a thoughtful performance that should quiet fears that he's just a pretty boy). Born Bernard Stroble, Shango was self-educated and politicized during his time inside, becoming a somewhat notorious "jailhouse lawyer," who helped fellow inmates with their cases. And, as the film has it, he's ornery and outspoken enough to alarm prison and state officials, who make it their business to convict him of the murders of two white inmates during the uprising.

Establishing both high drama and the high stakes of the uprising, the movie opens with a brief, pre-credits black and white flashback to the "yard," giving a glimpse of chaos and violence, punctuated by the relentless shooting that ended or forever changed so many people's lives. This ghastly scene cuts to a comparatively quiet one: three men are hunting deer, in color, in some woodsy wonderland. The Deer Hunter parallel is hard to miss: the auspiciously named lawyer Ernie Goodman (Alan Alda) has a moment, peering through his gun sight. His vision blurs, his hands shake, and, even as his friends urge him to "Shoot!", Ernie collapses, crumpling to the ground in an understandably frightened, shaking heap. While this moment signals Ernie's lesson to be learned, it also sets up the movie's ongoing preoccupation with his "condition" (later diagnosed as transient global amnesia, a possible precursor to stroke), which makes him even more valiant and selfless and wonderful than he would otherwise have been.

Ernie, of course, will take Shango's case, and he will endure the verbal abuses of not only the New York State authorities and attorneys, but of his own client, during his pursuit of justice. But the film is steadfastly focused on Ernie's understanding of events, his coming to terms with Shango's difficult background. The lawyer is aided in this coming-to-see-the-light process by his assistant, Linda (Rose McGowan). Initially, Linda is a bit of a well-behaved fireball, dressed up in '70s rebel-girl-wear (bellbottoms, colorful t-shirts), and standing up for Shango even when he behaves rudely (!) during interviews and consultations. For some unexplained reason, the famously "liberal" lawyer Ernie needs to be taught to accept this in a client, though you would think that he might have run into it once or twice before, in previous cases. But be that as it may, Ernie is feeling alone in Buffalo, and not a little oppressed himself by the opposing team's scammy tactics (intimidating witnesses, suborning perjury, losing or manufacturing evidence), and so he soon accepts the advice of Linda and her fellow "kids," volunteers for the Attica Defense Fund, working on the many Attica cases.

Linda is actually a more important figure in Shango's life than you might guess from her brief appearances in the film. Eventually, a final epigraph informs us, she will marry Shango and bear his children. Here, the romance is translated into a couple of longing looks, a moment when their hands touch, and a sorrowful embrace occasioned by Ernie's collapse in the courtroom. Theirs is the subsidiary story. In this telling, Shango's trial is more about Ernie's education and his admirable efforts to defend his client against obviously bogus charges than it is about Attica or its prisoners. While it clearly recalls Norman Jewison's The Hurricane, The Killing Yard is even more troublingly rudimentary in its melodramatic race politics. Where Rubin Carter was saved by a loving and committed black boy and his white guardians, here Shango is saved by Ernie, a noble Atticus Finch-wannabe who bonds with his client by sharing his own tales of hardship (anti-Semitism he suffered as a child) and persisting with the trial even when his friends and doctors tell him he must stop, or risk his life.

The Killing Yard's fictionalized, fit-into-a-two-hour-timeslot structure no doubt leaves out much of the complexity of Ernie and Shango's relationship, and it opts for soapy emotional shorthands more than once. But it almost seems afraid to delve too deeply into Shango's life, which is reduced here to a list of convictions (for assault, murder, etc.) rattled off by his lawyer. Perhaps it's too difficult to imagine a perpetually angry black man as the hero of his own story. Maybe this is why the film so clumsily introduces Shango's mother, Ma Stroble (Eleanor McCoy), who literally shows up on the sidewalk outside Ernie's hotel (the lawyer has apparently not sought her out), then tells him over diner coffee that her son is a "good boy." For the rest of the film, Ma sits silently in the audience section of the courtroom, taking Linda's hand to signal a dramatic turn of events (usually, when the slimy prosecutors do some dastardly wrong). Once she's served her purpose, namely, to show that the scary black man has a sweet mother who loves him, she's reduced to background.

Still, the film means well, and in its braver moments, allows Shango a couple of preemptive-strike-type speeches, acknowledging that the liberal white do-gooder character too often gets the attention in such commercial vehicles. Indeed, such speeches call out the film itself for its distressing racial machinations. When Shango meets Ernie for the first time, he asks if he's supposed to be just another chapter in Ernie's autobiography, "with you as the hero and me as the poor oppressed nigger." He also notes that "when this is over," Ernie gets to go home to his nice home and wife, while Shango goes back to prison. But such insights seem obligatory. It's not long before Shango undergoes the predictable humbling revelation: after seeing Ernie perform a particularly deft move in the courtroom, the defendant turns to Linda and says, "If I was half as smart as I pretend to be, I wouldn't be in this mess."

You can't help but feel that the man's intelligence wasn't the only or even the primary factor getting him into "this mess," but The Killing Yard makes its point. Both Ernie and Shango come to respect one another, and perhaps more importantly, to feel responsible for one another. And for all the film's clichés, Chestnut's performance grants Shango an undeniable dignity. When he enters into his "partnership" with Ernie, in his own defense, it's clear immediately that he knows all too well the system's built-in discriminations and cruelties, while Ernie still believes -- wants and needs to believe -- that the system "works." Though Shango's acquittal proves Ernie right, you also know that there are many other cases that prove otherwise. This is the most important reason for remembering Attica.

Directed by:
Euzhan Palcy

Alan Alda
Morris Chestnut
Rose McGowan

Written by:
Benita Garvin  

NR - Not Rated
This film has not
yet been rated.




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