Thursday, July 18, 2024

“REBEL NUN”

THE STORY – “Rebel Nun” follows the story of Catholic nun and leading death penalty abolitionist Sister Helen Prejean, whose story was first captured in the 1995 film “Dead Man Walking.” Now, almost 30 years later, through unprecedented access and a vast library of over six decades of archival footage, filmmaker Dominic Sivyer takes a look at the life and work of Sister Helen as she continues to be an inspirational force for justice.

THE CAST – Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Sarandon, Barbara Major, Don Knight & Richard Glossip

THE TEAM – Dominic Sivyer (Director/Writer) & Kari Lia (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes


At the 68th Academy Awards in 1996, Susan Sarandon was awarded her one and only Oscar for Best Actress. The win was for her portrayal of Sister Helen Prejean in the film “Dead Man Walking,” a story that follows Prejean as she tries to stop the execution of a convicted killer. The film and the book, based on the same name, changed public consciousness around the death penalty. In Dominic Sivyer’s “Rebel Nun,” Sarandon says Prejean “challenges people’s quickly formed ideas of what is just.” Like the aforementioned bestselling book, this documentary looks at Prejean’s life and advocacy in her own words.

The abolitionist begins telling her story at the moment it changed forever: She recalls the day of the first execution she witnessed in 1984, describing it as a beautiful spring day. “Too beautiful a day to kill anybody,” she says. Even though the man she watched die in the electric chair, Pat Sonnier, was the convicted murderer of a teenage couple, his death had a profound effect on her. She has watched six men die on death row over 40 years, and we meet her as she’s about to watch her seventh. 

In her sit-down interviews, the nun from Louisiana is instantly likable. She’s sweet, humorous, and, as described by a fellow nun and friend, a lively free-spirit. We see her in her humble surroundings at home, feeding the birds that come to visit, as she speaks of her upbringing. Personal photos and archival footage contextualize Prejean’s retelling of her youth and early days as a nun. She admits that being a nun came with loneliness and an emptiness that God couldn’t fill for her. She was always searching for something. Back in the 1950s, there weren’t many options for women. You either got married or became a nun, so Prejean chose the latter for the personal freedom she saw in it. That certainly came true in the 1960s, when a massive shift in the Church was seen. Now updated for the 20th century, nuns removed the habit and sought various work opportunities.

Her volunteer work helping in inner-city communities eventually led to a connection at the Louisiana State Penitentiary and volunteer work as a pen pal for inmates on death row. This is where she meets Pat Sonnier and admits she didn’t know what she was getting into. She becomes a spiritual advisor and, perhaps naively, sees his humanity. It’s hard to understand her sympathy towards men like Sonnier. But, while she is disgusted by his crimes, she believes wholeheartedly in the goodness in humanity and wants to find it in everyone.

Many interviewees explained that they were concerned about the close relationships Prejean formed with these prisoners. Some say that she went too far and that it’s hard to wrap your head around her trying to save a murderer’s life. She explains that a higher power guided her, but you feel the conflict and confusion that she felt in those early days. We are privy to her perspective on her activism, the perspective of the supporters along the way, and the perspective of those who opposed her – particularly the victim’s families. While Prejean fights to stop serial killer Robert Lee Willie’s execution, the sister of Faith Hathaway, one of his victims, expresses her anger towards Prejean, which she still carries to this day. As she puts it, it’s flabbergasting to see the nun fight for evil people. To her, it doesn’t make sense, leading to a lot of conflict for the audience. You support the victim’s families but, at the same time, you see Prejean’s heart.

The Reagan era’s expansion on the death penalty kicked Prejean’s activism into high gear and it hasn’t stopped since – her fight moving from Louisiana to the United States as a whole. While Prejean is a controversial figure, the documentary also makes it clear that there’s a lot of injustice in the justice system, and that many people in prison – and on death row – are innocent. Since 1973, at least 197 people “who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated,” so there is a fight worth fighting; the documentary highlights examples like Dobie Williams. Prejean knew this then from her volunteer work in Black inner city communities, and this still continues today, that racism permeates the criminal justice system and that racial disparities exist in U.S. jails. Many prisoners, like Williams, aren’t afforded a fair trial and it means a lot to them (and to their families) to have someone like Prejean on their side. (Also, the death penalty costs taxpayers a lot of money).

While Sivyer’s documentary feels very standard in presentation, it presents compelling themes like forgiveness vs. revenge and hatred vs. compassion. It’s a documentary that challenges personal belief, so much so that you may feel even more conflicted on the death penalty issue than ever before. But documentaries like “Rebel Nun,” ones that really get you thinking, are always worth a watch.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - A thought-provoking documentary that challenges belief, with a one-of-a-kind, controversial figure at its center.

THE BAD - It's pretty standard in terms of presentation.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 8/10

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Sara Clements
Sara Clementshttps://nextbestpicture.com
Writes at Exclaim, Daily Dead, Bloody Disgusting, The Mary Sue & Digital Spy. GALECA Member.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>A thought-provoking documentary that challenges belief, with a one-of-a-kind, controversial figure at its center.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It's pretty standard in terms of presentation.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>8/10<br><br>"REBEL NUN"