Out of the more than 100 films opening at the Hollywood Black Film Festival this week in Beverly Hills, one has captured the attention like no other. One has created that proverbial buzz and it’s one that sparks controversy at just the mention of the man’s name. The documentary, TRIBUTE: Stanley Tookie Williams, 1953-2005.
Williams, co-founder of the L.A.’s Crips gang, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, children’s book author and former death row inmate who was executed December 13, 2005, lives on in this world premiere showcase that is sure to make you question whether the state of California killed an innocent man or at least silenced a profound and effective voice that ultimately was speaking out against gangs and advocating peace worldwide - all from his tiny death row cell.
“When Stan was alive it was virtually impossible to get the truth told about him,” said Barbara Becnel, Williams’ good friend and longtime co-author who narrates the compelling film. ‘I tried to get a fair documentary aired about him, a documentary which allowed people to learn about the real man, not the person routinely depicted by much of the U.S. media.”
She believes people did not want to learn about his claims of innocence - even liberal supporters who supported clemency for him assumed he was guilty because of his status as the co-founder of the Crips. “Those same supporters,” Becnel explained to the L.A. Sentinel “would not consider Stan’s statements of innocence.”
So, accomplished writer, activist, friend turned filmmaker/producer Becnel and co-director Shirley Neal went to work going where no journalist or news network has dared venture, telling the complete story of Stanley Tookie Williams. TRIBUTE, a 66-minute film, examines the life and death of Williams and the international campaign for clemency to save him from lethal injection. It reveals the more personal side of Williams, the final moments of his life, the fulfillment of his final wish and a dramatic reenactment of what Becnel calls his “botched execution.”
Becnel and Neal were in the death chamber that night and witnessed Williams’ death by lethal injection which took 36 minutes - longer by some accounts - due to a medical technician who had trouble inserting the needles into Williams and literally had to poke the ex-gang leader for 11 minutes before her needle stuck.
“It was the most horrific thing in my life… and changed me forever,” said Becnel. She also witnessed what she described as Williams’ “display of remarkable courage and spiritual transcendence. He did not falter - even in his darkest hour - from his commitment he made to the Almighty many years before to be true to the redemption that he exemplified during the final 15 years of his life.”
The warden at San Quentin had an explanation for why it took so long to execute Williams. He told one journalist, “Williams was a big man… and the poisons (lethal injections) just needed time to work.”
Unlike other witnesses before, Becnel and Neal shouted as they left the death chamber emphatically stating, “The State of California just killed an innocent man.” It was the first time that anyone can remember that the eerie silence has been broken during an execution in California.
“I am, and will forever be, resolute in my support of every effort to end the death penalty in this country, and everywhere on the planet,” said Becnel.
Before the execution, many celebrities had come out in support of Williams, including Rapper Snoop Dogg who visited Williams at San Quentin, Academy Award-winning actor Jamie Foxx who played Williams in the FX made-for-TV drama “Redemption” made a special appeal for Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to save Williams’ life. Snoop, Louis Farrakhan, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and motivational speaker Tony Robbins also appear in TRIBUTE, remembering Williams and his positive contributions to the worldwide community.
Williams had one day hoped to prove his innocence and be released from prison. His plan was to travel to South Africa. “On the afternoon that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to grant him clemency, making certain that he would die in a matter of hours,” Becnel recalled, “Stan determined he would not be prevented from getting to the Motherland. He requested that I spread his ashes in Soweto, South Africa.”
That emotional moment, too, is captured in TRIBUTE.
When asked to give you 5 reasons to watch the documentary, Becnel is clear:
1) Viewers who attend the premiere of TRIBUTE at the Hollywood Black Film Festival will get the opportunity to learn a lot about the Stanley Tookie Williams I knew: an authentic man of honor, strength and redemption.
2) They will get a rare up-close view of capital punishment that very view people in this nation have seen, since so few are allowed in a death chamber during an execution. So the TRIBUTE audience will learn the truth about the inhumanity of lethal injection, a process of legalized killing.
3) Those who watch TRIBUTE will be exposed to the incredible scope of Stan’s peacemaker work as well as the legacy he forged in his lifetime to extend beyond his last breath.
4) “Finally, the people who see TRIBUTE will be inspired, I believe, to do more for those in this nation who are disenfranchised, who have lost hope. The inspiration of viewers will be anchored in the knowledge that Stanley Tookie Williams did so much from a nine-by-four-foot steel-and-concrete prison cell to help others. Those viewers, I am convinced, will be inspired to ask themselves: How much more can I do, given that I am free?”
5) “In my opinion, this is the greatest gift that Stanley Tookie Williams has left us all: the awareness that each of us can make the greatest of contributions to those neighbors, those communities that need us the most. It is simply a choice--our choice to make.”
The World Premiere of TRIBUTE: Stanley Tookie Williams, 1953-2005 screens Sunday, June 8 at 2:15pm at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. Screening location: Writers Guild Theatre, 135 Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills.
For other films premiering at the festival, go to www.hbff.org