Sometimes, even people with the best of intentions can get things horribly wrong. Rather than holding on to what we think we know is true, we all need to be able to look past our preconceptions and admit our biases. As much as we would sometimes like it to be, nothing is black and white.
This is the lesson of Dir. Alison Armstrong's stunning new film, The Guy With the Knife. The documentary follows the story of Jon Buice, a man sentenced to 45 years in the Texas prison system for the death of Paul Broussard, a gay man, in the wee hours of the morning on the 4th of July, 1991.
The story as the media told it was that Broussard's death was a hate crime at the hands of a group of juvenile, homophobic boys who would come to be known as the Woodlands Ten. Buice was just 17 years old on the fateful night when he and his friends, drunk and high, were involved in an altercation with Broussard.
Ray Hill, long-time a gay rights activist, was afraid the homicide of a gay man would not get the attention it deserved from law enforcement officials. As a result, he fought long and hard to get the case covered by the media. As a means to that end, Hill called the attack against Broussard a hate crime and a gay bashing. The case never went to trial, no evidence was presented against the boys, and the legal counsel they were granted encouraged them to plead guilty and accept a plea deal.
Buice was the first to be sentenced, and also received the longest sentence of any of the Woodlands Ten. He is the only one who still remains in jail. As of the end of the documentary, Buice has been denied parole eight times.
What Hill did not know – could not have known – at the time, was that his desire to get justice for Broussard would condemn a young man to a life in prison. Hill began corresponding with Buice through a series of letters, and got to know him well. Over time, he came to fight as hard for Buice's release as he initially fought for his conviction.
Just as the Central Park Five fit into a cultural narrative about racism in New York City, the Woodlands Ten fit into a similar narrative about homophobia in Texas, or the American South more generally. What had started as a narrative to convince the media Broussard's death was worth investigating spiraled out of control before Hill could stop what he'd started.
“There were some questions about me being homophobic,” Buice said in the film. “This has never been the case for me. What I was involved in was wrong. I never really meant to hurt anyone. I never intended to kill anyone.” Despite the fact that Buice has many advocates now arguing that he has been rehabilitated, the initial story told by the media is upheld by men like Andy Kahan, who are fighting hard to make Buice remain in prison rather than being released on parole.
Rather than offer my own opinion about Buice here, I will encourage everyone who is able to to go and see this film so you can decide for yourself. It is a powerful example of everything which can – and does – go wrong in our justice system. The question we have to ask ourselves now is whether prison is about reform or punishment? And even if our country as a whole decides the latter, what does it mean to scapegoat a 17-year-old boy for the crimes of an entire community?
The film includes a scene discussing an amended autopsy for Broussard, arguing that if he had gotten to the hospital in time, he would likely have been saved. But paramedics were not in a hurry to assist a gay man in 1991 – the height of the AIDS crisis. Even if we believe someone must be punished for Broussard's death, why Bucie? Why not Hill for lying to the media? Why not the paramedics who spent five times longer than necessary getting Broussard's body to the hospital for treatment? Why not the lawyers who advised a young boy to take a plea deal sentence of 45 years in prison instead of going to trial? What exactly is to be gained by making a repentant man spend the bulk of his adult life in a prison cell?
The Guy With the Knife will challenge even the most liberal of viewers, causing us all to think deeply about how we assign blame, who we choose to hate, and how the casualties of the fight for LGBTQ liberation don't always look the way we might imagine. Us versus Them thinking hurts individuals on both sides of the coin, and true freedom means freedom for everyone – not just those we think of as on “our side.”
The Guy With the Knife is an important film, and one which deserves the viewer's full attention. Go into it with the intention to listen with your heart, to be willing to be challenged, and with the desire to embrace all human beings as flawed creatures who are still worthy of love no matter their faults. By the end you might want to curl up in a ball on the floor as I did, so if you can, go with a friend. Or plan ahead to do some self-care after the film is over.
“There's not a day that will go by that I will not think about what has happened,” Buice says in the film. “There's not a day that will go by that I will not hope for the forgiveness of Paul's family.” I hope that forgiveness comes for Buice. But more importantly, I hope for justice. I hope that we, as a country, will learn to stand up and to fight for the rights of even those citizens trapped in our faulty prison system. I hope that we will learn to see that destroying the life of one young man cannot bring back another.
The Guy With the Knife screens Friday, September 11 at 2:25PM at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. If you do not have an AGLIFF badge, individual tickets can be purchased here.
This review was originally published by The Horn on 09/10/2015.