Starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence

Directed by Ted Demme

Produced by 'Brian Grazer & Eddie Murphy

Screenplay by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone

120 minutes, Rated R

Released to theaters in 1999, Available on Video and DVD


Review by Hans Sherrer

Justice Denied Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 5


Hollywood has gone too far,” was my first thought when I heard about a new movie called Life on the radio. The announcer said it was a fresh new comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. Its story line was simple. Murphy and Lawrence play two men imprisoned 65 years for a murder they didn't commit.

I was dumbfounded. How could any Hollywood producer stoop so low as to make a comedy about the horror of two guys wrongly imprisoned for their entire adult lives? I made up my mind. “That is one movie I'm definitely not going to see, and that's that!”

Life opened in April, and after it had been in local theaters for several weeks, I heard several people describe it as being more than a lame comedy. My curiosity was aroused, so I began to hedge on my earlier decision not to see it. After arguing with myself for a bit, I decided I would see the movie as a sort of research project. I would take a couple of hours to find out how badly the movie makers had mangled the truth in their pursuit of making money by providing people with some comedic entertainment.

Not wanting to blow more than the discount admission price on a movie I wasn't eager to see, I decided to go to a Sunday afternoon matinee. Entering the auditorium, I was struck by something extraordinary. In an area of Seattle where you can go an entire day without seeing a single black man or woman -- the majority of the surprisingly large audience was black. When the movie was over, I had some understanding of why there were so many blacks in the audience.

Munching on popcorn as the lights dimmed and the movie started, I was anything but unbiased. Being open minded, however, I was willing to give Eddie Murphy a chance to prove he didn't commit the sacrilege of making fun of people whose lives were decimated by being falsely convicted of murder and imprisoned for life.

The movie begins in 1932. Eddie Murphy plays Ray, a fast- talking, spirited dreamer who wants to have his own speakeasy -- "Ray's Boom Boom Room." Martin Lawrence is Claude, a quiet and methodical man eager to start his new job as a bank teller so he can be financially stable enough to marry his sweetheart, Daisy. Ray and Claude begin as strangers living in New York who happen to meet one night at Spanky's, a hot nightclub. After a series of events, they wind up in Mississippi needing to buy and haul a load of liquor to New York for Spanky, to whom they both owe money. Ray is always ready to have a good time, so after picking up their load of booze he gets them into an awkward situation that prevents them from leaving Mississippi. Found near a dead man they didn't kill, they are wrongly convicted of a murder they didn't commit. Ray and Claude are sentenced to life and spend the next 65 years together as the property of the State of Mississippi Department of Corrections. The Boom Boom Room remains a dream in Ray's mind, and Claude can only fantasize how life with Daisy would have been.

I won't give away any more of the plot but, to my surprise, within the first ten minutes I realized that my expectations of the movie were wrong. Life is neither a slapstick comedy, nor does it grossly mangle the truth about the way people falsely accused of committing a crime are treated. Certain parts of it are even reminiscent of Cool Hand Luke, but with a liberal sprinkling of “dark humor” consistent with the gravity of Ray's and Claude's predicament.

I was impressed by how Life mixed a great deal of meat in with Eddie Murphy's and Martin Lawrence's low-key humor. A list of meaty themes it presents:

•Police perjury is pervasive.
•Disinterested or corrupt judges deny defendants the opportunity to present an adequate defense.
•Incompetent defense lawyers leave hapless defendants twisting in the wind.
•Brutish and racist prison guards are not unusual.
•Police and prosecutors condone “illegal” activities -- such as gambling, prostitution and drugs (booze) -- as long as they get a piece of the action.

•Prisoners, particularly those who claim to be innocent, are treated condescendingly by wardens and other authorities who lord it over them.
•Prison guards and administrators bend the rules for money or other favors. After all, these people serve as the main conduit for the flow of drugs and other contraband into prisons.
•There is an “old boy” system of back-slapping and winking at misbehavior that enables gross injustices by police and other officials to never see the light of day, much less ever be corrected.
•The web of circumstances surrounding an accused person's life and actions all too often creates a false impression to casual observers that they may have committed a crime.
•The ebb and flow of friendship and loyalty is placed under great stress by various pressures, such as being falsely convicted and imprisoned together for 65 years.
•A great many dreams remain nothing but dreams because of the unjust imprisonment of innocent people by the criminal prosecution bureaucracy.

•Regardless of how egregious the errors committed by a judge or prosecutor during a trial, it is rare for a conviction to be overturned on appeal.
•Poor people, whether black, white or Hispanic, are unrelentingly oppressed by the predominantly white upper class who control the criminal justice and political system for their own economic, social and political benefit.
• Prisoners intensely long for their loved ones, and suffer an equally intense despair when their loved ones forget and abandon them while they are entombed in “the land of the living dead” -- prison.

This list of themes should make it abundantly clear that Life is anything but an insignificant comedy, although it entertainingly conveys these serious messages without being preachy by skillfully combining humor, drama, photography and social commentary.

photo 08         photo 04   Photo 16   Photo 14 All pictures from official Universal Pictures Life website at:

Thinking about the way Life deftly deals with its serious subject matter reminded me of why Rod Serling started The Twilight Zone television series in 1960. As one of the most well-known and highly paid television writers during the 1950's, Rod Serling constantly battled to keep the censors who worked for advertisers from stripping controversial themes and meaningful dialogue from his scripts. He decided there was only one way he could consistently slip serious scripts past the advertising censors. He had to submit them for review under the guise that they weren't to be taken literally because they were only “science fiction” stories from The Twilight Zone. It may not have been done consciously, but Life has mimicked Rod Serling's ingenious idea. By appearing to be an Eddie Murphy comedy, it has slipped some of the most serious and tragic themes of our time into movie theaters all across America to be shown many hundreds of times daily.

Apart from having many black actors, the troubling story told by Life may help explain the predominantly black audience at the theater I attended. In general, non-whites can relate to a movie revolving around false imprisonment more than whites. This is because non-whites are imprisoned at a dramatically higher rate than whites, even though it is known that the overwhelming amount of crime in America is committed and condoned by upper class white people who occupy positions of financial control and political power. A few of the many books that document this are: ... And the Poor Get Prison: Economic Bias in American Criminal Justice by Jeffrey Reiman (1996), White-Collar Crime: Offenses in Business, Politics, and the Professions edited by Gilbert Geis & Robert F. Meier (1977), and Power, Crime, and Mystification by Steven Box (1983).

Among other things, these books explain that crimes by businessmen, professionals, and politicians not only exceed the annual dollar value of all “street and drug crimes” by a factor of more than fifty, but they also inflict much more physical harm, including deaths, on lower- and middle-class Americans than do "street criminals."

An example of this is that avoidable deaths attributed to business practices, professional activities and political decisions are not classified as murder, so they are not prosecuted as crimes. A national study released last year emphasized this by revealing that up to 135,000 healthy people a year die in hospitals from adverse reactions to doctor-prescribed drugs, yet I can't recollect hearing of any doctor who was prosecuted for contributing to these unnecessary deaths. On the other hand, the 17,000 deaths officially classified by police as murders last year were predominantly committed by people in the lower economic and social class of American society.

Life acts as a mirror to reflect the plain truth that politically institutionalized racism against the poor and defenseless is alive and well in the USA of 1999. In its April, 1999 issue, Esquire magazine exposed a particularly crass example of this. Investigative reporter Gary Webb revealed that the federal government has a policy of training and encouraging police nationwide to target blacks for traffic stops using racial profiling. It is known as DWB: driving while black.

There are two aspects of Life that didn't ring true, although they are minor compared to the movie's good points. It portrayed one man who briefly served as Ray and Claude's prison warden in their later years as having a compassionate heart of gold, and the ending was all Hollywood.

Life is poignant, entertaining and remarkably accurate about many of the real-world ways hordes of innocent people are routinely prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned. With Eddie Murphy's seemingly effortless charm leading the way, Life won me over. It definitely rates a thumbs up.