Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
A 94-minute debate about the death penalty may not sound like the most captivating cinema, but anyone who’s gotten jazzed by a lively philosophy class (hello?) should find Robert Blecker Wants Me Dead fascinating. The documentary, which chronicles the relationship between New York Law School professor Blecker and now-executed Tennessee inmate Daryl Holton, is engrossing regardless of whether you agree with the titular law professor’s views—and according to the Ted Schillinger’s film, not many do. Blecker preaches a stance best described as pro-capital punishment with an asterisk. A retributivist, the ever-analyzing prof believes that certain criminals deserve to die—painfully, in some cases— but he “is just as concerned that does who don’t deserve it don’t get punished, or don’t get punished beyond what they deserve.” Before becoming one of Schillinger’s subjects, Blecker sought to document the conditions of several death rows himself. When he found the condemned playing baseball and dominoes, he remarked, “If there’s such a thing as justice, that isn’t it.” Often in the film, Blecker speaks directly and passionately to the camera, talking about archaic concepts such as blood pollution (“that’s not my child,” he says of a girl raped and murdered, “but it is my child”) and how it’s natural and even necessary for a jury to feel hate and anger toward anyone who “took life…took love.” That attitude makes Blecker’s obsession with Holton confounding, even to himself. For more than a year, Holton, who readily and calmly turned himself in after killing his four children execution-style, engages Blecker in a fiercely intelligent and often wry back-and-forth about the death penalty and his own crime. He only seems a monster in the cool of his logic and lack of remorse (his kids were growing up neglected in the projects with his alcoholic ex, but he couldn’t provide better for them, he says). Yet Holton still acknowledged that he, too, deserved to die. Blecker, at one point, tells an unknown caller that Holton “makes me laugh. He informs my understanding. He says things that are provocative and insightful.” When Holton applied for a stay of execution, though, Blecker got angry—he still wanted the man dead. The professor’s continually evolving analysis of the situation is captivating. While some moments, like Schillinger’s shot of Blecker literally standing on middle ground after being banned from both pro- and anti-death penalty vigils the night Holton is finally executed, seem contrived, a woman’s tears when Blecker discusses the murders with her are as wrenching as the issue itself.