Murder in the First is based on the imprisonment of Henri Young in Alcatraz. After a failed escape attempt in March 1938, Young (Kevin Bacon) is placed in a solitary confinement. This confinement, what the prisoners have called the dungeons, is an underground vault where Young remained for three years. The first half hour of the film brutally portrays the torture Young is put through while in solitary confinement.
At the end of the three years, Young is brought out of confinement and rejoins the prison community. While sitting in the mess hall strangely getting adjusted to the sounds and voices, he notices his fellow escapee who did not receive the treatment Young did. In a quick moment, Young is out of his seat and stabs the other man with a spoon. Young is taken into custody.
What follows is a courtroom drama seeking to answer the question, “Is Henri Young a murderer or victim?” Young, court-appointed attorney, James Stamphill (Christian Slater) argues that due to the suffering he experienced while in Alcatraz, Young is indeed a victim. Gary Oldman is Assistant Warden Milton Glenn, a man with extreme anger issues. William H. Macy is D. A. William McNeil who proves to be a strong adversary for the young Mr. Stamphill.
Stamphill is the only—the only—character in this film who finds and shows compassion toward Henri Young. Which brings to mind these words of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel:
“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36 emphasis added)
In the beginning of the film, director Marc Rocco depicts the torture of Henri Young in such a way that you cannot help but think of Jesus. Young’s confinement results in him having long hair and a full beard. The artist-like camera angles that Rocco employs only intensifie the Christ-like affect. The way in which Rocco has the guards beat Young, in addition to the cruciform position in which Young hangs while getting beaten screams to the unconsciousness, “This is Jesus.”
The disciples asked Jesus, “When did we visit you in prison?” As if to say, “You were never in prison, Jesus.” Jesus’ reply was, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matthew 26:45)
If Henri Young is the Christ-like figure, James Stamphill represents who Jesus calls us to be. We are to find and show compassion to others—those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and in prison. Dr. Cornel West has gone so far to challenge that the Church is not fulfilling its mission if it does not visit those in prison. In the film, even though Henri never got out of prison before he died, he felt liberated; liberated by the compassion showed to him by Stamphill. Our love for our neighbors, despite who they are, where they are, or what they have, has the power to liberate.