The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

April 18, 2013

West of Memphis: My Favorite Documentary Gets a New Partner

Roger Thomas
CNHI News Service

Thursday, April 18, 2013 — I saw “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills” when it played in theaters in 1996. At some point during the viewing, it became my favorite documentary. A position it has held for nearly 20 years. I own a copy of it, along with the two sequels “(Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory).” Many know part of the story told in the films; it is a story that everyone should witness.            

Now there is a fourth film, “West of Memphis,” that holds the distinction of having Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the producers of the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy,” as producers of this powerfully moving documentary. It is difficult to separate this new film from the previous trilogy for all four contribute to the telling of a remarkable story of injustice, politics and murder.

On May 5, 1993, three 8-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Ark. Three teenagers were eventually arrested for the murders. “Paradise Lost” tells the story of their trial. The films that follow continue to offer insight into the crime and speculation about the guilt or innocence of the three teens that would eventually become known as the “West Memphis Three.”

The new film, “West of Memphis,” which is now in theaters, reveals the most recent twists and turns in a case that has haunted me since I saw the original documentary. Any fan of true crime stories will find this entire tale captivating, though it is not always easy to watch it unfold. 

But beyond the crime, “West of Memphis” reveals a great deal about humanity. There are many tragedies in these events, and the murders are far from the only sinful atrocities that are committed. The numbers of guilty persons, in this simple but vast story, are nearly incalculable.

On the other hand, there are many heroes in these accounts. “West of Memphis” depicts individuals and crowds who stand up for true American values of justice and integrity, and against political ambition, convenience, dishonesty, and an absence of the pursuit of truth.   

I also found myself thinking, “Where would I have stood if I were a part of the West Memphis Community?” These crimes were committed, oddly enough, on my 30 birthday. I tried to remember back to what kind of person I was at 30. Would I have been a part of the voices of righteousness or the machine that rolled over truth in order to bring a swift conclusion to the disruption of the community?

“The Paradise Lost” films and “West of Memphis” appeal to me so much because I have lived in small southern towns most of my life. I understand the dynamics that exist in places like the community where this tragedy happened. These films ask a lot of questions and expose much of the underbelly of the wholesome perception that is often associated with small town life. This story could have happened many places across our nation, and the question lingers, “Would it have played out any differently somewhere other than west of Memphis?” Probably not, if the citizens were as eager for resolution over all else even truth and justice. And that’s an individual choice. Mobs are only as big and strong as the number of people who choose to grab pitchforks and torches; and that potential is in most of us.

I, of course, started to understand this story in 1996 when I first saw “Paradise Lost.” I do not think you need to see that film or its sequels to find “West of Memphis” to be a truly remarkable documentary. On the other hand, if you get a chance to rent “Paradise Lost,” before or after watching “West of Memphis,” I think you will discover a true gem. These films tell a story that everyone needs to hear, and needs to remember. True injustice should never be forgotten in the constant pursuit to not repeat others’ past mistakes or our own.

Roger Thomas reviews films for The Stanly News & Press and