In the top 50 of the best documentaries on Netflix right now you find The Thin Blue Line, a documentary film from 1988 directed by Errol Morris. It isn’t hard to understand why this documentary has gained so much attention.
Morris’ documentary dives into the story of prisoner Randall Dale Adams who was convicted and serving a life sentence for the murder of police officer Robert Wood on November 28, 1976 in Dallas, Texas. Adams claimed it was a crime he did not commit.
In a combination of talking head interviews of police officers, lawyers and witnesses, archival footage, and several groundbreaking re-creations, director Morris takes the audience back to that night and the moment of the crime to cover all the angles of the case trying to convince the audience of Adams’ innocence.
With the prominent use of re-creations, Morris constantly plays with the limits between nonfiction and fiction. But the fictionalized reconstructions of the murder scene are one of the most important elements of the documentary. The audience sees the murder several times throughout the film, but the interesting thing is that the scene looks different from each witness’ point of view. Without stating it outright, Morris is questioning the reliability of the human memory that was the main evidence that convicted Adams. Everyone has his or her own version of the truth of what happened that night.
From the inaccurate testimonies to the showings of the narrow-minded and bad work by the police, justice soon begins to feel far, far away in this case. It is easy to imagine the powerlessness that Adams undoubtedly feels because the audience members start feeling it themselves. How could anyone at that time really believe that Adams had committed the crime?
The documentary opens with the lines: “We got into Dallas on a Thursday night. Friday morning while I’m eating eggs and drinking coffee, I get a good job. I mean, it’s you know… all these people are supposedly out of work. I’m not in town a half a day, and I’ve got a job. I just … everything clicked. It’s as if I was meant to be here,” Adams says from prison.
Randall Dale Adams was just an ordinary guy who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time – and the film suggests this could happen to anyone. The hope is that the issue in this film is an isolated case but in fact, Adams is far from the only innocent man in prison in the United States.
A report from the National Registry of Exonerations from 2016 shows 1,994 known exonerations in the United States since 1989 .
For twelve years Adams was in prison for a murder he did not commit. And he would probably still be there if Morris hadn’t investigated his case. Morris not only proved that the wrong man was jailed. His investigation also ended up solving the case when David Harris, who blamed Adams and got him convicted for the murder in the first place, admitted to committing the crime on tape.
After watching, one is left with a lot of outrage and anger and without a doubt some distrust of the criminal justice system. You are witnessing a documentary that ends up having a real-life impact – a work of art that actually freed a man from prison and changed a life. Morris not only revealed one man’s tragic story, he also revealed a bigger issue in the criminal justice system that still needs more attention. And that is what makes this documentary important and still worth watching.