Granted, everyone loves an unlikely hero. But Cameron Todd Willingham was an unemployed man who beat his wife and was executed in 2004, after 12 years on death row for killing his three young daughters in a fire he set to their home.
But did he?
Incendiary: The Willingham Case is a smart documentary that opens with the following statement from one of many scholars interested in the case: “Committing arson at 9 a.m. is pretty uncommon.” A perfect opening, as it offers a single, common-sense explanation for the unlikelihood of Willingham’s alleged crime, even as the film goes on to debunk and dethrone the “common-sense” methods that got a man convicted of and put to death for a crime that most likely never occurred.
Directors Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. tell the story skillfully. We hear from the scientists who prove—almost with ease—that the arson investigation was based on “fabrication, folklore, and witchcraft.” These moments in the film can be a bit tedious—few will find an extremely knowledgeable scientist explaining very thoroughly and in great detail the difference between arson and accidental fire riveting material. Nonetheless, it’s this deliberate unfolding of information that gives the case for Willingham’s exoneration its heft. Juxtaposed against the scientists is Willingham’s alleged trial lawyer, who speaks against his client with a down-home, Southern sensibility (complete with cricket noises and rooster crowing in the background). In one interview, he draws parallels between O.J. Simpson and Cameron Todd Willingham: “If he’d-a been black, and Vasquez [the lead fire investigator] had-a said ‘nigger’ at some point in his life, we could-a used that.” The moment is so real and so honest, it’s hilarious: Willingham’s own defense attorney, implying that his client got what O.J. deserved.
As the story unfolds, however, the documentary achieves a certain strangeness. We see the bad guys at their best (or worst): Gov. Rick Perry and right-hand man John Bradley as the all-powerful politicians with personal agendas. We have met the scientists turned heroes, who are attempting to right some major interpretational wrongs. The sides seem so clearly and absolutely drawn. But suddenly, enter the anti-death penalty activists, a movement that has latched on to Todd Willingham and made him the face of their campaign. By this point, thanks to the scientific evidence presented in the first half of the film, the viewer, convinced that arson was not, in fact, committed, likely agrees with the activists that Willingham was wrongfully put to death. And yet that doesn’t mean the viewer will be on the same side with those looking to abolish the death penalty in Texas. As the story unfolds, it’s as likely the viewer will, instead, shun these activists.
This moment—and a few others—succeed in problematizing the plot with fantastic aplomb. At times, Willingham is the victim. In other moments, he is—as one of his own defenders calls him—“a real son of a bitch.”
Despite the occasional broad-brush stroke, the filmmakers refuse to tell the viewer which side to take. There’s no big-bang ending that tells the audience, once and for all, where the film or filmmakers stand. Even the big, bad politicians and lobbyists are given powerfully intimate close-ups—the camera rolls wistfully by the white of a pupil or the curl of a finger—that remind the viewer that the said potential villain is also human (rather than a monster, a word frequently used by Gov. Perry in his interviews about Willingham).
Incendiary achieves greatness as a deeper divide in the perspective of its characters is revealed. The directors tell the story of an arson investigation gone horribly wrong, but they tell it from the dispassionate perspective of the scientific method. And through this lens, anti-death penalty protesters, politicians, attorneys, and even family members of deceased children—basically anyone who is likely to lack objectivity concerning the case—are viewed suspiciously. Every last one of the people who were involved or involved themselves in the case comes with an agenda. One might even argue that the very concept of “agenda” is the true villain in the film. Conversely, scientific method is presented as almost wholly and entirely without agenda. So when a seemingly bewildered Dr. Gerald Hurst, the first scientist to prove Willingham’s innocence, asks, “What happened to the fire?” he is pointing to the fact that his study somehow exploded into a series of opposing political movements.
Incendiary expands upon Hurst’s question: What happened to science, to the pursuit of knowledge? And why are the American people more comfortable with common-sense and myth (often disguised as tradition) than educated attempts at truth? And what, as a result, have we lost in the fire?