Published on July 1st, 2011 | by Cassady Dixon0
At the core of Yoav Potash’s new documentary “Crime After Crime” is a very wholesome woman. Debbie Peagler was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. As a young woman she met and fell in love with a man who would haunt her the rest of her life. This man seemed charming at first, but gradually began to show a violent, threatening streak. Debbie, after getting little help from the authorities, enlisted the help of some gang members she knew. What was supposedly intended as them roughing up Debbie’s boyfriend led to the man’s murder, and this put Debbie behind bars for over 20 years, as part of a life sentence. The film follows the efforts of two attorneys to get her released under a California law that requires the consideration of domestic abuse in cases like Debbie’s. California, we are informed, is the only state with such a law.
Legal documentaries and melodramas have a problematic nature, which is that they mostly report an issue from one side. What attention they do give to the devil’s advocate is fairly short shrift or out-and-out dismissive. They appeal to our emotions, the sad look on the face of the accused, their families, etc., and of course we could never think that the person is deserving of so much punishment, not after all this time we have now spent with them, not after all the accused had been through up to the point of the crime(s). This applies to everything from Aileen Wuornos of “Monster” fame to the brilliant “Paradise Lost” about the West Memphis Three. The central dichotomy is that even the apparent hard-fact documentaries tug at our heart strings while the actual justice system is built upon an emotionless rendering of the facts at hand.
“Crime After Crime” falls into this territory on more than one occasion. We hear pleas from all sorts of people, even those who were related to Debbie’s murdered ex-boyfriend, that Debbie should be released. We are told that her involvement in the crime was superficial at best, that she merely led the victim to the scene, and it was the two Crips that did the rest. Moreover, the central crux is that Debbie was abused. Her boyfriend supposedly had a Jekyll-and-Hyde lifestyle of charming young man, coldhearted pimp. He was merciless with Debbie when she refused to “earn” for him. This is all legitimately tragic, but the point is that we are merely told this information. None of it is proven. We want to believe it, because here is a sobbing Debbie telling us this story, but does this qualify as evidence that can reverse a conviction, in a court of law no less? And believe me, it is not easy to bring up these points. I know full well it makes me sound like a heartless robot, but aren’t these worthy considerations?
Let’s get off that for a second and merely focus on the filmmaking here. For the most part Mr. Potash is rather effective. There is a nice, evenly-spaced interplay between the history of the case, Debbie in prison these many years later, her lawyers hard at work and also the people surrounding the events like Debbie’s family. A great touch is that halfway through the film we think everything has been wrapped up in a nice bow. Debbie seems to be on the verge of freedom only to have the rug pulled out from under her. Her struggle gets worse, and then even worse after that. Still she persists, and is mostly optimistic and righteous about her ordeal. That is really what makes this film work. Debbie is such a decent soul that I was able to get beyond the “what ifs” concerning her innocence. For even if her conviction, at the time it was given in the 1970s, was arguably fair under the circumstances, there is little doubt that this woman had paid her dues and then some.
I do take some issue with Debbie’s attorneys, though. Both seem to be mugging for the camera a bit too much, and their cause seems to at least have a decent helping of self-promotion at the hands of an imprisoned woman. Moreover, we’re also introduced to a Private Investigator who works on their behalf, and it’s strange how willingly the film seems to give this shady character a pass. Maybe I just have an innate suspicion of PIs, but a little more objectivity here would be nice. Also, I think we could do without the awkwardly gratuitous shots of the female-half of Debbie’s legal team jogging in skin-tights for her morning exercises. Congratulations on a constitutional figure, but this is neither the time nor place.
The politics of the movie are very clear and unapologetic. Yes, we must assume that this California law, requiring the weighing of domestic abuse in sentencing, is an all-around worthy foundation, but the film treats the issue rather glibly. The implication is that if you are abused, you should probably be allowed to kill your aggressor. I say this is implied, because no one in the film ever really admits that Debbie should have ever served any time at all. We are led to believe that the position of those involved here is that Debbie was performing a community service. And maybe she was if we want to be folksy and vigilante about it. But we can’t merely go around taking the law into our own hands, and yet this is exactly what landed Debbie in jail. For much, much too long, sure, but let’s not ignore the issue from where this all began. Life itself is rarely black-and-white, and it would have been refreshing if Mr. Potash had a similar gaze.
Politics aside, “Crime After Crime” is worth seeking out for its intriguing central subjects. In Debbie Peagler’s case, we have a remorseful, warm woman. In the case of her lawyers, their passion for this case is at times admirable, but also periodically opportunistic. At either rate they are interesting to behold. And, at the risk of spoilers, the ending brings a very strong sense of satisfaction. One truly comes away feeling that Debbie’s long hard fight, while deserving of it on a greater scale, finally achieved some justice.