Billie Melissa: Abolishing the Death Penalty Through Storytelling

Six people sit on a porch, smiling.

Conversations about the carceral state and policing have become increasingly common over the last few years with renewed interest in imagining an abolitionist future. 

The carceral state, which includes prisons, detention centers, policing, and surveillance emerged from and continues to perpetuate settler colonialism, racial capitalism, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. Currently, there are 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States. In addition, Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons at five times  the rate of white Americans

It’s critical to understand that racism is deeply baked into the prison industrial complex, and its impact on communities of color (in particular, Black communities) is not incidental, rather it is by design — the carceral state is a product of centuries of racial violence and white supremacy. 

I find Mariama Kaba’s words on abolition especially relevant: “It’s not simply that we can’t imagine a world without police, but that we are disciplined into not having that imagination.”

As of 2022, there are 2,414 imprisoned individuals on death row in the United States, of which 41% are Black people. Many have critiqued the serious physical and psychological impact of long-term confinement and isolation that is generated by death row; however, the reality is that many of us know very little about the lived realities of those on death row. 

I interviewed Billie Melissa, a fellow graduate student in the Media Studies program at The New School, who has been deeply involved in anti-death penalty work since 2019. 

We talked about the possibilities that reside in film as a medium of social change and discussed her current project, a documentary about Billie Allen, who has been on federal death row for 25 years with a case of innocence. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

An interview with filmmaker Billie Melissa on reimagining justice through film

A white woman with long hair takes a selfie, sporting a soft smile.
Filmmaker Billie Melissa. Photo courtesy of Billie Melissa

Varshini: Hi Billie! I’m very excited to chat with you about your involvement in anti-death penalty work and the documentary you and your team are making about Billie Allen. 

To get us started, can you tell me about how you came to be involved in the fight against the death penalty and the carceral system? Was there a particular moment that propelled your interest? 

Billie: For me, it was seeing “Just Mercy” in 2019. I knew nothing about the death penalty or the prison system before I saw that film. 

I was working as press at the London Film Festival, so that means we see everything early and are encouraged to post our reactions on social media. So, I posted a reaction and then one of Bryan Stevenson’s clients (who is also in the film) reached out to me. 

We had a conversation on Skype, and he was just telling me his story and telling me about how he thinks that film and media really changes hearts and minds and helps people understand the people that they otherwise wouldn’t come in contact with. 

At the time, I had never known anyone who had been in prison, and now I know so many people who have been incarcerated. 

When I graduated from film school, I feel like every graduate knows, regardless of whether it’s film or any other major, you come out of school and you’re like, ‘what do I do now?’ I didn’t know what to do with my life. 

I was thinking about film as a medium and just hearing people’s stories and having people reach out to me and asking for small bits of help here and there with their media campaigns. It seemed like the right place for me. It feels like the most fulfilling thing to be doing with the medium.

Varshini: Thank you for sharing about how you came to do anti-death penalty work. Let’s talk a bit about the racial dynamics of abolition work. 

I recognize that this is a complicated question to answer, but can you tell me a bit about how you, as a white woman from the UK, navigate the racial dynamics of doing abolition and anti-death penalty work? 

Billie: I think all you can really do is just be aware of your privilege, specifically because I’m British as well. I’ve watched so many documentaries of British people going into American spaces and feeling like I’ve got all the answers because “I’m from the UK, and I can fix it.” 

I think being a filmmaker and a documentarian, it’s important to realize you’re telling somebody else’s story. And I think the way that I combat that is, well, how do they want to tell the story? If they have access, if they have the camera, how would they shoot this? 

Being aware of your privilege and of the fact that you don’t have the answers and all you can do is listen to the story and then tell it the way that they want to tell it. 

I’ve had conversations with people at production companies, and they want a specific story. They want a sensational story, and I have to say that these types of stories are creating a culture of fear and tend to focus on dehumanizing people.  

It’s also about not telling the traumatic story because that isn’t their story as a person. Everyone’s had the worst moment in their life but it’s not your story. Sure, it’s shaped who you came to be. That’s what we’re trying to do with the documentary with Billie Allen, we’re not telling the crime story. It’s not about his crime. It’s about him as a person and the story that he specifically wants to tell. 

Varshini: I resonate a lot with your response, Billie, especially in the context of my own work about labor rights for migrant workers. Next, I’d like your thoughts on methods and modality. 

What do you think are the possibilities of using film to communicate and address complex forms of oppression and social phenomena? Why film?

Billie: When I get asked a question like this, my immediate response is something that Barry Jenkins said about looking into the eyes of people that you’ve never seen before. For me, that is kind of what film does; it forces you to look. 

Writing goes over a lot of people’s heads, and I love to write, but I hate to read. I love to watch and learn that way. And that’s because I can see a person and relate myself to it. I don’t know why I can’t do that on the page. And so for me, visuals have always been there and there’s aesthetics to it and it’s beautiful and it’s such a precious medium that is so accessible.

I just think it’s that tangible thing of being able to see somebody, being able to identify with their story, being able to then share it. It’s like a communal thing. I love the theater experience, you’re experiencing something with a bunch of people. 

When I saw “Just Mercy,” I had seen it with a group of friends and we spoke about it after and had conversations that we hadn’t had before, and film really does open up conversations that you might otherwise not have had. 

Varshini: I love that! I’ve been thinking a lot about public scholarship, accessibility, and the responsibility of amplifying stories about particular populations of people living in politically sensitive environments. I think your response speaks to the power and possibilities that reside in a deeply empathetic approach to storytelling. 

Let’s talk about the documentary on Billie Allen that you and your team are working on. Who is Billie Allen?

Billie: I met Billie Allen in 2020 when the Trump federal execution spree was going on. His sister, Yvette Allen, reached out to me because she was putting together an event called Stomping Out Injustice, which was a digital art exhibition. 

It had panels with different activists, and she needed help editing video, and she just saw online that I was a filmmaker. When I spoke with Yvette, I said that I’d like to speak with Billie. She put me in contact with him, and we’ve been speaking ever since. 

Billie Allen has been on federal death row for 25 years with a case of innocence. He was convicted of a bank robbery in St. Louis in 1997. So basically, what happened was that the two men involved in the robbery had driven away in a van, and one of them was caught at the scene, and then the other one they had to look for through the night.

Billie was arrested at 2:00 a.m the next morning from his girlfriend’s house. He’s been on death row ever since, but always maintained his innocence. 

He has DNA evidence, an alibi, eyewitness testimony, all of these things that no one has ever seen. They’ve not been seen in court. They weren’t seen at his initial trial. They were things that he discovered while he was on death row. He was finding out these bits of information while on death row.

A Black man in a gray shirt stands in front of two paintings while wearing handuffs.
Billie Allen with his artwork. Photo courtesy of students at Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative.

But outside of that, he’s not his story. He’s an artist, he’s a writer. He’s the best brother in the world to his sisters. They’re mostly older than him. He has a young sister, and he’s loved by his mom. 

Going to St. Louis and being with his family [for the documentary], I met his third grade art teacher, and he was so shocked and didn’t even know the details of the story, didn’t know about the innocence, didn’t know all of these things. And it just became really apparent to me that the truth was really there the whole time, and nobody looked for it and nobody cared about it. 

He knows that he’s not perfect and that his story isn’t perfect and that he’s done things in his life that were not good, but he hasn’t committed this crime. I could go on for hours about how incredible of a person he is, but outside of this wrongful conviction, he really just has the most resilient, strong spirit that I’ve ever met. 

And, I think it’s incredible for all that he’s been through, that he still is able to be the way that he is, and that’s testimony to the people that raised him because they’re also the most incredible people.

Varshini: Billie Allen sounds like a wonderful person! Are there certain political goals or objectives that you hope the documentary meets? What do you hope people take away from it?

Billie: I think specifically with the documentary, we want people to know Billie Allen. We want people to fall in love with him the way that everyone in his life has fallen in love with him. 

It’s really difficult because so many people on death row have these media campaigns, and they have people out there campaigning for them to the point where it’s overwhelming, right? Who do you choose to support? It’s difficult to know where to place your time and energy. But that’s because people don’t ever tell the person’s story, they tell the case. 

For us, what was really important was remembering that we’ve connected to him because of the person that he is and that’s what is going to connect with an audience is people saying, “Oh, he’s just like me, and this could have happened to me.” 

There’s always something to find in his story. You can relate to your own life or just loving art or loving writing or wanting to pursue something, but something’s holding you back. And, his thing just happens to be the fact that he’s on death row.

A group of six people sit on a porch, smiling.
The documentary team. Left to right: Mori Rothman, Juanita Allen (Billie Allen’s mother), Yvette Allen (Billie Allen’s sister), Maurita Cardone (red sunglasses), Rebecca Waer (black sunglasses), Billie Melissa. Photo courtesy of Billie Melissa.

Varshini: It sounds like you and your team hope to humanize Billie Allen through the documentary. Thank you so much for your time and thoughts, Billie. You know that I always enjoy chatting with you! Importantly, thank you and your team for your incredibly impactful work and for helping tell the profoundly moving story of Billie Allen. 

To support Billie Allen, visit his campaign website. To learn more about his story, watch this short video by the Georgetown Prisons and Justice Initiative.

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