Life (1999)

Directed by Ted Demme

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Life is one of those movies I hadn’t seen since I was a kid and which apparently stuck with me.  As an adult there’s nothing so striking about it, at least compared to what else we’ve all seen in movies.  It’s ostensibly a comedy, at least it feels like it, and Lawrence and Murphy are most known for their comedic roles.

In Life, however, there’s no justice.  There is some hope at first that they’ll get a fair trial (nope) and then that they will have a fighting chance with an appeal (nope), and then before you know it a decade has passed and getting out is no longer their goal.  They just endure with what is, not what could be.  It’s a quiet turn, and the characters just have to live with it.

As a kid, watching movies in which things are just and follow a certain moral code, this doesn’t make sense.  Race is a big factor, of course, and prejudice abounds within the movie, but before you know it race is hardly commented upon, if only because most of the inmates are black as well, and thus the color of their skin doesn’t stand out when they’re all the same skin color.

Life shows the development of institutionalized racism.  Ray Gibson (Murphy) and Claude Banks (Lawrence) are punished, in large part, for their skin color (and being in the wrong place at the wrong time), but as the story goes on they continue to pay the price for that “crime” many decades before.

It gets to the point where we see them as old men, sitting in a nice enough looking prison with a white attendant who is just doing her job and would have know way of knowing that they don’t deserve to be there.  At this point in the story it is no longer questioned, just the way it is.  

The final turn in the story is a hopeful one as we’re inclined to think that our two heroes have at last escaped.  It’s not entirely clear if this ending is a case of unreliable narration, but the importance is that they hold onto hope that they will escape.  It matters that they never give up.

Backtracking a little, Ray and Claude meet by chance in 1932 New York.  A doomed bootleg operation and happenstance leads to their arrest for the murder of a man they met that night though did not kill.  The evidence against them is purely circumstantial, but being in southern country and being black, there’s about a zero chance they will get a fair trial.

Sure enough it’s not long before we see them squarely in prison and not long after that we jump ahead a decade into the future.  Soon after that, and a rift that develops between Ray and Claude, we jump over two decades further into the future (thanks to a montage of the 60s revolutions, including war and assassinations), and it’s implied that they haven’t spoken to each other in that entire time.

There is an existential dread that hangs over Life, and I suppose life too.  I still find it striking, but as a child it was both a confusing and unsettling sensation that I couldn’t explain, particularly since this movie seems on the surface to be a comedy.

Up Next: The Terminator (1984), Singles (1992), Jerry Maguire (1996)

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