Can a man escape the villainy of his past through his good works?
This is the driving theme behind “Redemption: The Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams Story,” about the South Los Angeles street gangster and death row inmate whose anti-gang books for children have earned him three Nobel Prize nominations.
“I really felt that this story had divinity,” says director Vondie Curtis Hall, director of the two-hour docudrama that airs 8 p.m. EDT Sunday on FX. “The notion of one’s introspection and quest to find the deepest good in one’s self fascinates me. When I talk about divinity, that’s what I wanted — I wanted to find that journey, that inward journey of a man.”
The story begins on San Quentin’s death row, with Williams, played by Jamie Foxx, telling of his chaotic childhood in the 1970s, trying to survive in a community riddled with gangs.
Gaining a reputation as a master street fighter, Williams teams with a rival gangster to form the Crips, which overtook its fiercest enemy, the Bloods, to control much of the city’s gang territory.
“If Stan ‘Tookie’ Williams had been born in Connecticut in the same type of situation, and was a white man, he would have been running a company,” says Foxx, who gained some 25 pounds to resemble the hulking inmate. “But born a black man who has the capability of having brute strength and the capability of being smart in the ways of the world, he’s going to get into what he gets into.”
Williams’ rampage of rage and violence ended in 1981 at age 26 when he was sentenced to die for the killing of four people, including a teenage convenience store clerk shot in the head during a $111 robbery.
After six years in solitary confinement, Williams started writing children’s books with an anti-gang message because gang influences often start at an early age.
“In order for me to experience redemption, I had to first develop a conscious,” Williams once said of his intensive study of the Bible to understand his own self-hatred. “That enabled me to gradually rectify my many faults ... only then was I able to reach out to others and make amends.”
From the start, Williams’ literary collaborator has been Los Angeles journalist Barbara Becnel, who first met the prisoner in 1993 when she interviewed him for her book “America’s Other Civil War: The History of the Crips and Bloods.” At that time, Williams told her of his commitment to end the violent legacy he began.
“Stan and Barbara have a kind of platonic marriage of sorts,” says Lynn Whitfield, who portrays Becnel in the film. “When two people who are very bright come together from opposite ends of life experience, and both with equally founded points-of-view, and they challenge each other, it allows for something very exciting to happen, and in terms of cause, are very stimulating to each other.”
It wasn’t that way in the beginning, however. “It took almost two and a half years before I committed to (helping him publish the books),” says Becnel. “I wanted to take the time to convince myself that he was sincere ... I expected the news media image of a gang member. What I found was an articulate, quiet man.”
A pivotal moment
But it was during his videotaped speech at the first-ever gang summit in Los Angeles that Becnel realized the power behind Williams’ soft-spoken words. “When he started speaking ... all eyes were on him,” Becnel remembers. The scene is a pivotal moment in the film, which is largely sympathetic to Williams.
“What I saw that day, and I’ve seen it many times since, his voice is the credible voice that these young folks would listen to. I knew then that the (books) would have tremendous value,” Becnel said.
While Williams’ anti-gang message has been praised worldwide, the messenger remains a problem for some.
“He’s a murderer,” argues Nancy Ruhe, executive director of the National Organization of Parents Of Murdered Children.
“When these people do bad, the media, moviemakers see them as redeemed and glamorize this,” she says. “But what about the families who had children murdered and put together the Amber Alert? Do we put them up for an award? Do we make a movie about them? No. I’m so sick of hearing his name, they need to carry out the punishment.”
In September 2002, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals recommended gubernatorial clemency for Williams, who is currently awaiting the final appellate decision, which Becnel says could come “any day now.” The film ends with the wait for that decision.
In the meantime, Williams has his own “Tookie’s Corner” anti-gang Web site and is writing his autobiography. As with his other books, proceeds will be donated to various inner-city charities.
“The thing that Stan’s story tells us is that one can choose a higher path in spite of circumstances,” says Hall, the director. “Stan has changed millions of lives from a 9-by-4 foot cell.”