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Made-for-TV Atonement

Stanley "TOOKIE" WILLIAMS, a legend in street-gang and law-enforcement circles for three decades, is about to join the long parade of little-known souls turned into TV-movie celebrities.

This figures to cause plenty of consternation in family rooms across America, because Williams is the co-founder of the Crips gang and a death row inmate convicted of four Southern California murders. He has attempted to redeem himself by renouncing his gang days and writing a series of children's books on how to avoid the undertow of gang life.

Such competing evils and virtues provoke questions of biblical intensity: Can a sinner ever truly atone for his sins? Should society applaud what Williams' supporters call his "second life"? Or, in the service of an eye for an eye, should we still put him to death?

These qualities convinced the FX basic-cable network -- hungry for original programming to refute its early reputation as a home for prime-time reruns -- to make the openly sympathetic Williams biopic "Redemption." The movie, in which Jamie Foxx reverently portrays a soft-voiced, philosophical Williams, premieres next week at the Sundance Film Festival, a badge of honor for a made-for-TV project. It begins running on FX, which reaches 80 million households, in early April.

The few TV movies that venture into social quagmires like abortion, AIDS or war usually get there long after the mud has dried. "Redemption" is set on a still-shifting landscape: Williams, 50, confined to San Quentin State Prison since his 1981 conviction, is nearing the end of his appeals and could be executed within the next year or two if the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to hear his argument that he was framed. A federal appeals court ruled against Williams in late 2002. But the court -- citing his books and passionate renunciation of gang violence -- took the highly unusual step of recommending California reduce his sentence to life in prison.

It's doubtful that will happen. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in contrast to the rigid stance of previous Gov. Gray Davis, approved the parole of two convicted murderers during his first week in office. But granting Williams clemency would carry a higher price in California, where polls show the vast majority support the death penalty.

'IT WEIGHS ON YOU'

Armed with this sense of urgency, the actors and crew who shot "Re- demption" last August in an abandoned To- ronto warehouse-turned-prison-set brought a noticeable solemnity to their work. One minute Foxx would be drawing a crowd with a hysterical verbal assault on his manager for questioning the nobility of the Dallas Cowboys. Then it would be time to go back into prison mode, and suddenly Foxx's countenance -- hardening of eyes, slower, more dignified pace of walk -- would shift. Some days that expression never changed.

"It weighs on you," said Foxx, who had four lengthy visits with Williams in San Quentin and has corresponded since shooting ended. "When I left him the first time, he said, 'You gonna come back, man?' I say, 'Yeah,' and he says, 'Man, you ain't gonna come back to see me, man. You just gonna do your Hollywood thing.' It kind of forces the ball in your court."

Foxx and most of the principals are, like Williams, African American. Most had known little of the gangster, but all were aware of his gang's legacy and his legal limbo. In interviews they focused on their admiration for Williams' conversion and tried to avoid thinking about the day he might be strapped down and given a lethal injection.

"No one wants to die," said director Vondie Curtis-Hall ("Glitter"), who also met with Williams in prison. "But if it comes to that I think he has released the outcome. He knows that his work will speak for itself." (Williams, unhappy with a previous Times article, declined to be interviewed.)

"I feel very responsible for the story," said Lynn Whitfield, who plays Williams' editor, spokeswoman and confidante, Barbara Becnel. "It's important to have a contemporary version of 'Scared Straight.' ... The bottom line is, how did a man who is this poetic, this bright, this focused, how did he fall through the cracks of a community?"

Williams' life seems suited to the screen because so much about him is larger than life: The tree-trunk biceps he once chiseled on his 5-foot-10, 300-pound frame through weightlifting. His dominance of death row Crips during his first decade in confinement. His ability to write eight well-received children's books during his second decade there. His talent for attracting earnest sympathizers, who have nominated him for the Nobel Prize in both peace and literature.

The arguments "Redemption" ignites are also likely to be oversized. There is no middle ground here. You may believe the movie's portrait of Williams' sincerity, as does Miss Illinois 2003, Andrea Fritz, a white suburban woman who reads from Williams' stark "Life in Prison" to junior high school students as a cautionary tale. "What he's doing from prison is more powerful than what most people are doing in freedom," Fritz says.

Or you may believe, like veteran L.A. street gang investigator Wes McBride, that the books and the gang-renunciation campaign are the work of a cynical con. "He doesn't want to get executed," says McBride, who left the county Sheriff Department's gang unit two years ago and remains president of the California Gang Investigators Assn. "Even if he has [reformed], he still killed four people. The fact that he's sorry now is a little late."

RISING VIOLENCE

McBride began working as a sheriff's deputy in 1966. Stanley Williams was 12 then, having moved at age 7 with his mother to South-Central Los Angeles from Louisiana, part of a massive '60s migration of Southern blacks to L.A. Williams has written that he was routinely picked on as a young teen and gradually learned to use proactive violence to survive.

Back then, Los Angeles viewed its gang problem as primarily Latino. An African American gang network of the '50s had partly fallen away after the 1965 Watts riots in favor of black nationalist activity. In 1971, Williams, 17, merged a group of his friends from the west side of South-Central with another group to the east led by Raymond Washington. Williams contends the move was intended to protect his friends from other gangs, but within a year the new gang -- calling itself Crips -- was a criminal enterprise and Williams was an acknowledged godfather-like figure. Some of the gangs the Crips warred with began calling themselves Bloods. New "sets" loyal to one side or the other began to spawn. Guns replaced knives. An ethos of drive-by shootings -- sometimes one Crip set against another -- was born. By 1979, Los Angeles led the nation in gang-related homicides.

That year, Williams was arrested for two robbery-murder incidents. One was the shotgun killing of Albert Owens, a Whittier 7-Eleven clerk. The other took the lives of Los Angeles motel clerk Yen-I Yang, his wife and their adult daughter. Lacking eyewitnesses, prosecutors relied on the testimony of several people who said Williams told them about the crimes -- in one case laughingly describing Owens' last breaths. Williams and his supporters contend that key testimony by a jailhouse informant came after prosecutors coached him and say Williams' legal representation was weak. A motion for a rehearing by a larger panel of federal appeals court justices is pending.

In prison, Williams was as dominant as he had been on the outside. He was placed in solitary confinement for six years for allegedly contributing to gang warfare. That was where he was residing when Barbara Becnel entered his life.

Becnel, four years older than Williams, was the West Philadelphia-born daughter of a school principal and a dry-cleaner. She had spent part of her childhood in Southern California, had a son at 16 and then attended college and did graduate work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Math, economics and Russian culture were among her specialties. She first made her living as a public policy analyst, a woman whose view of life's problems tended toward the abstract. Then, in her mid-30s, she became a writer. She was researching a book about the Crips when the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out, allowing her to witness subsequent efforts to negotiate a gang peace treaty in Watts' housing projects. What she heard about Williams made her determined to interview him.

The man she found in San Quentin was, as Becnel describes it, amid transition -- stunned at the way Crips had spawned throughout California, becoming primary vendors for "crack." By the end of the '80s there were violent drug dealers claiming Crips affiliations in scores of black communities around the nation. A prison chaplain had given Williams a black-history book and then a dictionary to help him make his way through unfamiliar words. He had begun scribbling autobiographical shards by the time Becnel began visiting him.

Becnel said their first two years of prison conversations were wary on both sides, a theme "Redemption" emphasizes. "Did Stan and I have class battles? Yes ... I did not come in as a bleeding-heart liberal ... I assumed anybody who ended up on death row got there fairly and squarely." Gradually, she said, Williams convinced her to postpone her history-of-the-Crips project and help him write a book for young children as a way of making up for what he had done. He would dictate to her from prison. She would edit.

The first volumes in 1996, published by a small New York company, were small and simple but exacting. One focused entirely on how gangs abuse power: "... As a teenager, I didn't know the meaning of power. I thought that by using violence to scare people, I was proving that I had a lot of power. But when you use your power to make someone do something they don't want to do, or to hurt someone, you are abusing your power."

Another explored gangs and friendship: "... A homeboy is not a true friend if he tries to make you do bad things -- like join a gang and sell drugs, or steal, or a carry a gun, or even kill somebody. A homeboy is not a true friend if he calls you chicken." The books echoed a formula preached by law enforcement for years: Aim antigang programs at elementary-school-aged children.

The centerpiece of the series is the more detailed 1998 "Life in Prison," published by a division of William Morrow, in which Williams takes readers on a tour of strip searches, loneliness, boredom, bad food and medical care, putrid odors and violence. He warns them to tune out when gang members talk about the inevitability of prison -- a place he heard romantically described in his teen years as "gladiator school." "To get a feel for what it's like to live in a prison cell, test yourself. Spend 10 hours -- nonstop and alone -- in your bathroom at home."

Becnel said exposure to Williams helped her find "my black heart" -- a sense of racial identity that had been muted by concern for how the white world saw her: "I walked into San Quentin with my hair straightened, wearing pearls. He asked me, 'Why don't you wear braids?' It was not something my mother would have encouraged me to do." In time, Becnel did. "That was a huge step for me."

Becnel also set up a website for Williams ("Tookie's Corner"), where he posted an apology for the damage caused by the gang he founded and offered an intricate gang peace proposal.

The books got enough publicity that in 2000 a member of Switzerland's national parliament nominated Williams for the Nobel Prize (which was won by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan). Soon a producer pitched the Williams biopic to FX. The attractiveness of a TV movie based on an archetype, rather than a simple tragedy ripped from the headlines, was immediately attractive, FX President Peter Liguori said. "Let's go back to the Greek classics. They're all about putting pressure on somebody so they can reveal their true selves. This is a story about whether or not Tookie is showing you his true character."

Another producer, Rudy Langlais, who had worked on two controversial historical dramas -- about the conviction of boxer Ruben "Hurricane" Carter and a series of Atlanta child murders -- signed on to spearhead "Redemption." Williams "struck me as a man in the midst of sort of reinventing himself," Langlais said, "wrestling with past and future, becoming aware he is one step away from extinction." Langlais said Foxx's growth from a stand-up comedian to a serious actor made him a natural to play Williams. Foxx was intrigued by self-styled outlaws: "The Gottis, the Suge Knights -- trying to figure out how they functioned. As far as Took's situation, it always seems to come out of need, need to have money, need to be considered a man, need to be respected."

FOXX BULKS UP

The emotional urgency of "Redemption" mounted in September 2002, when the federal appeals court rejected Williams' appeal and urged he be granted clemency. It was now clear his execution might come close on the heels of the movie. (There was also the awareness that prison officials, who have periodically expressed skepticism of Williams' sincerity, would probably never allow him to see the movie.) Another crisis emerged: Foxx had signed to work on Tom Cruise's next movie ("Collateral") and had the option of bypassing "Redemption." He chose to stay, and the producers compressed the shooting schedule.

Foxx, who in his previous film had lost 40 pounds to portray a young Ray Charles, ate heavily and lifted weights for seven weeks to make himself more "Tookie"-like. Between takes in Toronto, he kept pumping iron.

"I gave him my word I was going to take care of this story," said Foxx, who was raised in a small Texas town that he said left painful memories of discrimination. "I had to do this project.... I know I'm going to be successful, but with projects like this it's not the money you make, it's having the chance to touch, to get a chance to inspire. Especially for black folks.... If we can get some education about some of the things we go through, it's worth more than any amount of money."

One of Williams' most powerful observations is the way self-hatred fuels gang violence. "An individual who has been spoon-fed so many derogatory images of his race will, after a period of time, start to believe those images," he told sociologist Lewis Yablonski for Yablonski's book on gangs, "Gangsters": "The images I'm talking about are stereotypes that depict the majority of blacks as being buffoons, functional illiterates, violent and promiscuous....Unfortunately too many black people have been brainwashed into believing these stereotypes.... So you end up lashing out at [other gang members] that you consider to be part of those stereotypes. In desperation, you're trying to obliterate that negative image, to rid yourself of this self-hate monster."

This is not an original thesis -- it is reminiscent of Malcolm X's use of "brainwashing" as a metaphor -- but it resonates when it comes from a gangster. In the movie, Foxx recites a shorter version, guaranteeing "Redemption" will have one of the most racially sophisticated moments of 2004. Foxx's Williams talks movingly about how the Crips became a family for a boy abandoned by his father, how he wants "to stop this madness I created," how " 'revenge' is no longer in my vocabulary."

What Foxx's Williams doesn't do is address his responsibility, or lack of it, in the four murders. (The closest he gets is: "Every morning I wake up, I know I'm not supposed to be here.") By contrast, Williams' legal appeal is clearly based on a claim of innocence. Victims'rights advocates, who have not seen the movie, are almost certain to judge it as unbalanced. "I think the title should have been 'Redemption?' with a question mark," said Jonathan Raven, who is in charge of the state attorney general's victims unit.

Murder victim Owens' daughter, Rebecca, who was 8 when he was killed and is now a mother of four living outside California, said she was enraged when she came across news of "Redemption" on the Internet several months ago. "The man is asking for redemption and he's never even apologized" for the murders, she said.

"Everyone who views it will view it from their own perspective," director Hall said with resignation last summer. "The thing I want to do is tell a human story and talk about the redemption of Stan, his journey from super-gangster to almost sage now, and the journey of Barbara, who came in with a predisposition not to like Stan.... Stan viewed her as a sellout, she viewed him as a thug, and both ideas were wrong."

Early in "Redemption" we hear gruesome court testimony recounting the four murders, and we watch Williams at the moment of conviction. The movie also includes a fictitious scene in which a protester comes to Becnel's home and dumps a canister of blood on her and yells: "This is for the victims! You support a murderer!"

"I support human rights!" the Becnel character yells back. "God is not about violence and hate! God is about forgiveness and repentance!"

It's not hard to imagine the same argument -- with no middle ground and no place to hide -- ringing through family rooms in April.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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