The debate about the lack of diversity among Oscar nominees has mostly focused on the big, celebrity-driven categories. But scroll down the list and you’ll find “Last Day of Freedom,” a short animated documentary, made by two women, that explores race, war trauma, and the death penalty. The film, which is available on Netflix, follows the story of Manuel Babbitt, a black veteran of the Marines who served in Vietnam. A decade after his return, Babbitt murdered 78-year-old Leah Schendel during a break-in. His lawyers later claimed he was having a flashback.
Defenses based on post-traumatic stress disorder are seldom successful, and this one was no exception (here’s a report on the many veterans sentenced to death), but Babbitt’s story features a particularly sharp tension between sympathy and retribution. While on death row, he received a Purple Heart for his physical wounds; after his execution, in 1999, he was buried with full military honors.
“Last Day of Freedom” takes the form of an interview with Bill Babbitt, Manuel’s brother, and uses his words as the basis for an animation built from more than 30,000 illustrations. The film was made by California artists Nomi Talisman and Dee Hibbert-Jones as the first in a series of shorts examining the effects of the death penalty.
Talisman and Hibbert-Jones shared with The Marshall Project two clips from their interview with Babbitt that did not make the final cut, and spoke about making the film. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity:
How did this film come about?
Nomi Talisman: I had a job doing media work for mitigation specialists, going to interviews with investigators of family members and other community members as they tried to dig into the background, the social history, and the mental health issues of people facing death sentences. Mostly, I would sit quietly while the investigator spoke to a witness and make sure everything was on tape or video, to collect images. All of that would end up in mostly pre-trial presentations.
I’d come back and talk to Dee about it, and we realized that so much of the conversation about criminal justice and the death penalty in particular is about right and wrong, guilt and punishment. But our work is about connections: you live in a society that have all these other things in it that don’t seem to be connected but that influence your life. And this was such a good example: you talk to family members and bar none they’d say, ‘We were trying to do the best we could to help them, to support them, and we just didn’t have the resources.’ We wanted to understand the death penalty’s impact on entire communities.
Dee Hibbert-Jones: We chose this story in part because there is no question of innocence; Manny very clearly committed the crime, which meant we could look at all the ways the state failed his family, where the judicial and educational systems failed him. It was larger than just empathy — we could unpack the question of who is at fault here. Is it the drunk lawyer? Is it the judge who fails to see the lawyer’s drunk? Is it people failing to take Manny in when he’s homeless?
And why did you choose animation, as opposed to a more straightforward documentary style?
Talisman: We started by interviewing family members in other cases, and one family needed anonymity, so animation became a way of using our skill — drawing — to give them anonymity. But then we realized that animation gave us new possibilities for bringing new audiences to see and hear the story, people who wouldn’t normally listen to these issues.
And we thought animation would allow us to look metaphorically. We knew we didn’t want reenactments — a graphic portrayal of the violence in the story, of war and murder and execution — so we felt we could open up new psychological ways of looking at the story. We realized through illustrations we could put ourselves in Manny’s head, describe Bill’s sense of isolation, see and visualize the emotional tenor of Bill’s storytelling.
Race is of course a major theme here, and I noticed that you illustrated Bill Babbitt — who is black — as just black lines on white paper, so he appears literally white even as a viewer is aware that he’s African-American.
Talisman: When you hear Bill and look at him, you can guess his ethnic background. We wanted to portray him in a very minimal way, and black pen on white paper is one of the most basic notions of drawing. And that allows you to read into what you’re seeing: we leave it all open. You don’t at first notice his skin color, but maybe you guess his racial background.
Hibbert-Jones: It was one of the most challenging questions we had, as two white women representing minorities and thinking about that relationship. We played with line quality and color and we were so conscious of it and we thought of it as a risk, the way we drew him, and when the film came out we waited for questions about his color and our representation. Animation allows this tricky possibility of being distancing on the one hand, and on the other hand to allow incredible intimacy, an ability to identify in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. It was partly our desire to render him in a way where you’re pulled in, you can see every wrinkle on his face. We thought we could utilize line drawing, the simplicity of it, to create empathy: if we showed more of him, we worried it would allow viewers to distance themselves from him.
Do you consider yourselves journalists? Activists? Were you worried that presenting yourselves as opponents of the death penalty might turn some people off?
Hibbert-Jones: I wouldn’t say it’s a journalistic work. Part of the reason we chose Bill’s story was because he at first supported the death penalty — until he was directly affected by it — and we didn’t want it to be black and white. We didn’t want it to be dismissed as propaganda. We wanted to encourage dialogue, rather than to have a piece of direct advocacy. I do hope the film is emotionally heartrending, so viewers can see how the death penalty has an effect on whole communities. At the same time, we didn’t want to add to the pain of the family of the victim. It’s complicated territory we’re treading, and we’re aware of that.