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Playback: Errol Morris' 'The Thin Blue Line'

By Jon Shenk

Courtesy by Mark Lipson

I was a freshman in college when a friend asked me one night if I was interested in seeing a documentary film. "The director will be there," he said. "A guy named Errol Morris."

The screening was in a lecture hall, but when the lights dimmed, I immediately felt transported to another world. An electric blue line shot through the screen during the title sequence, and I remember thinking, I have no idea what this blue line is all about, but I'm drawn to it. I spent the rest of the film in a state of hypnosis.

The first lines, like so much of the interview material in The Thin Blue Line, come so effortlessly. This is America, I remember thinking, but a new kind of America where every spoken syllable is important. A man in jail tells us, "In October, my brother and I left Ohio... We arrived in Dallas on a Thursday." Another inmate begins by saying, "I ran away from home." The pace is patient and deliberate. In this alternate universe, engaging one another's stories feels like a sacred act. 

At 19, I had never considered a career as a documentary filmmaker. I had never thought about what made a documentary a documentary, but with The Thin Blue Line, I was beholding a beautiful piece of art, full of drama, justice and humanity. I wondered, Could I ever be a part of something like this?

The Thin Blue Line is a study of truth. At one level, it is a collection of depositions, in life's cosmic courtroom, that serve as a giant "fuck you" to the Texas criminal justice system. During the Q&A that night, a student asked Morris how he felt about the death penalty. He responded that he never intended to make an anti-death penalty film, but that he found his subject, Randall Adams, by accident while researching a film focused on the court psychologist that assessed Adams' sanity. "However," Morris said, "if I was able to randomly uncover one innocent person on death row, I can't help but to think there might be a second one out there."

That response defines the relationship between documentaries and the potential activism around the issue that they approach. Morris is not so much an activist as he is an artist/storyteller unabashed by unimpeachable, first-hand knowledge about this particular subject matter.

On a deeper level, The Thin Blue Line is about a more nuanced sense of truth—a nonfiction version of Kurosawa's Rashomon, where the same event looks entirely different from each participant's point of view. The details in Morris's now-famous re-creations of the murder scene change depending on who is telling the story. The first time we see the incident, both police officers get out of their car. The next time, after we hear an investigator surmise the possibility that the victim's partner likely remained in the police cruiser during the shooting, we see a new version of events reflecting this reality. Each time the film presents the murder scene, Morris changes the details to reflect the POV of the character speaking; each character has his/her own version of the truth.

It's only when all of these points-of-view are considered together that a greater truth emerges: (1) Randall Adams was railroaded by lazy cops, deluded and drunk witnesses, and an impartial judge; (2) what people really want is to be understood, appreciated and taken care of. It is poignant that the real killer in the story, a victim himself of parental neglect, had been acting out for years, practically begging for attention and help from his community.

I was young and impressionable at the time, but I left the screening that night angry, moved and excited. I now know that there were great documentaries made before The Thin Blue Line, and certainly important ones that followed, but this is the film that showed me the incredible potential of what can happen when you allow real people to tell their story, and when you pay attention to the details.


Jon Shenk is a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, and is the founder of Actual Films. His most recent work is the award-winning The Island President.