Starring Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence
Directed by Ted Demme
Produced by '
120 minutes, Rated R
Released to theaters in 1999, Available on Video and DVD
Justice Denied Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue 5
I was dumbfounded. How
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
afternoon matinee. Entering the auditorium, I was struck by something
extraordinary. In an area of
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.
plays Ray, a fast- talking, spirited dreamer who wants to have his own
speakeasy -- "Ray's Boom Boom Room."
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
Daisy. Ray and Claude begin as strangers living in
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
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
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.
Thinking about the way Life deftly deals with its serious
subject matter reminded me of why Rod Serling
The Twilight Zone television series
in 1960. As one of the most well-known and highly paid television
during the 1950's, Rod Serling constantly
keep the censors who worked for advertisers from stripping
and meaningful dialogue from his scripts. He decided there was only one
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
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
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
non-whites can relate to a movie revolving around false imprisonment
whites. This is because non-whites are imprisoned at a dramatically
than whites, even though it is known that the overwhelming amount of
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.
acts as a mirror to reflect the plain truth that politically
racism against the poor and defenseless is alive and well in the
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
briefly served as Ray and Claude's prison warden in their later years
a compassionate heart of gold, and the ending was all
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.