Prison Films: An Overview*

By Inez Hedges

American film, whether documentary or fiction, has been relatively silent about the enormous prison population in the United States. The groundbreaking documentary was no doubt Frederick Wiseman’s 1967 exposé in Titicut Follies of the shocking conditions in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater, Mass. Banned for decades by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (on the grounds that it violated the privacy of inmates), the film showed bullying by the guards and treatment that would qualify as torture today—such as confining naked patients in cold and empty cells.

Wiseman set the tone for subsequent documentaries with an urgent social message. Though few in number, they are powerful. The most recent one, Broken on All Sides: Race, Mass Incarceration and New Visions for Criminal Justice in the U.S. (by Matthew Pillischer, 2012), is based on Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. It features interviews with Alexander and criminal justice experts, along with ex-prisoners, and includes several drawings representing aspects of prison life by Leonard C. Jefferson, an inmate at the State Correctional Institute in Albion, Pennsylvania. The film also graphically illustrates statistics that will come as a shock to many. It underscores Alexander’s point that the 1 in 3 black men who have been marked as felons by the criminal justice system represent a racial caste—a sector of the population excluded from full civic participation, from many jobs, and from education.

In another documentary, the German director Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss (2011) interviews Texas death row inmate Michael Perry just eight days before his execution along with his accomplice, guards, and the victims’ families. In one interview, Captain Fred Allen, who has overseen over 100 executions, explains why he is now opposed to the death penalty. Angola 3: Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation by Jimmy O’Halligan (2009), narrated by Mumia Abu-Jamal (on death row at the time), examines the social circumstances that led to the creation of political prisoners in the US. Racism is the focus of that film and others such as The Vanishing Black Male by Hisani DuBose (2005) and The Farm: Angola, USA (Liz Garbus, Wilbert Rideau, and Jonathan Stack, 1998), which features interviews with six inmates. Michael Moore’s Roger and Me (1989) includes a biting satire as socialites enjoy a party and a $100-night in jail prior to the opening of the new prison in Flint, Michigan.

On the other hand, there have been two strong films about prisoner rehabilitation and education. What I Want My Words to Do to You (by Eve Ensler and Judith Katz, 2003) documents a poetry and fiction writing workshop in a women’s prison (with performances of the prisoners’ writings by well-known actors, including Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, and Rosie Perez). The Dhamma Brothers (by Andrew Kukura, Jenny Phillips, and Anne Marie Stein, 2008) movingly illustrates the (brief) introduction of Vipassana meditation in a maximum security prison in Alabama. Bradley Beesley’s Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo (2009) documents the participation of women convicts in the annual Oklahoma rodeo (operating since 1940, but admitting women for the first time in 2006) that pits prisoners against bulls and bucking broncos, at the risk of serious injury.

Although the lines between historical accounts and social message are not clearly drawn, other documentaries take on more of a historical focus. Let the Fire Burn (2013) shows how the Philadelphia police allowed an entire neighborhood to burn down when they bombed the MOVE center in 1985. Most of the members within the building were burned to death, and dozens of their low-income neighbors lost their homes and all their possessions. The film raises questions about police brutality and the violation of basic human rights. Michael Jarecki’s The House I Live In (2012) explores the human rights implications of the US “War on Drugs” and traces drug use from the 1950s to the present. It constitutes an indictment of the US legal system. The Central Park Five (by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, 2012) explores in chilling detail the way that five innocent black teenagers were framed and railroaded into falsely confessing their involvement in the rape of the “Central Park jogger” in 1989. The Thin Blue Line (by Errol Morris, 1988) revisits the framing of Randall Adams for murder, leading to his being sentenced to death—a film exposé that led to the innocent man’s release. The jury was prejudiced against Adams because he was an outsider to the community. Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) tells the story of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver who was tortured and killed at the Bagram air base in 2002 after being falsely accused of being a terrorist. The individual fate of the man is a reflection of the misguided foreign policy and military operations of the US as well as an indictment of then-Vice-President Dick Cheney. Road to Guantanamo (by Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom, 2006) is a docu-drama that won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival in 2006. It centers on three British citizens of Pakistani heritage who were picked up in Afghanistan (where they had gone for a wedding) and shipped to Guantánamo Bay. There they are subjected to beatings, endless interrogations, and other forms of mental and physical abuse. By relating the fate of the three prisoners, the film casts light on the arbitrary detention, interrogation, and torture inflicted on randomly selected victims by US policymakers. By contrast, the attempt at comedy in Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) by all accounts from reviewers falls flat.

The impregnable Alcatraz prison has long been a subject of fascination in the public and by the media. Alcatraz Reunion (2008) brings together ex-prisoners and guards on the 70th anniversary of the prison to reflect on their prison experiences and life after release.

Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist who remained on death row for 29 years (1982-2011) and has still to be granted a new trial in the murder case involving a policeman, has been the subject of several documentaries. The latest one, Mumia: Long Distance Revolutionary (by Stephen Vittoria, 2013) includes interviews with and statements by a host of luminaries such as Cornel West, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Ruby Dee, and Ramsey Clark. Framing an Execution: The Media and Mumia Abu-Jamal (by Sut Jhally, 2001) streams on the website of the Media Education Foundation. Mumia Abu-Jamal: Reasonable Doubt? (by John Edginton, 2007) outlines the case against the court that convicted him, as does the soon-to-be-released Justice on Trial: The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal (by Johanna Fernandez and Kouross Esmaeli, 2011). In Prison My Whole Life (by Marc Evans, 2007), illustrates Mumia’s courage and perseverance in the face of injustice, while All Power to the People (Lee Lew-Lee, 1996) includes Mumia in a general treatment of the Black Panther Party.

When it comes to fiction, the Alcatraz setting has proven to be popular—Hollywood has offered both Birdman of Alcatraz with Burt Lancaster as the convict who becomes an avian expert (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1962), and Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood (directed by Donald Siegel, 1979), which dramatizes the improbable feat of one man’s escape from that supposedly impenetrable fortress. Some fiction films with a prison element come with a social message: The Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) features a threesome of escaped convicts who undergo a series of encounters including one with the Ku Klux Klan, while the skinhead protagonist of Tony Kaye’s American History X is immersed in delusions of white supremacy and the drug culture. Frank Darabont’s philosophical and ever-popular The Shawshank Redemption (1994) asks audiences to identify with and care for the fate of a prisoner (Morgan Freeman). Prison guards are treated sympathetically in two films I am aware of. In Marc Foster’s Monster’s Ball (2001), a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) has second thoughts about taking part in the execution of a death row prisoner and also begins to question his own racism. In Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999), a guard (Tom Hanks) tries to save the life of a black death row inmate after it is discovered that he has magical healing powers and is probably innocent.

Criticism of the death penalty is central to both Alan Parker’s The Life of David Gale (2003) with Kevin Spacey and Tim Robbins’ Dead Man Walking (1995). In the first, Spacey’s character carries out a horrific plan in order to prove that death row prisoners are often wrongly convicted; in the second, Sister Helen (Susan Sarandon) develops an understanding and sympathy for a death row prisoner (Sean Penn) who, though guilty, is portrayed as a person deserving of respect.

Along with The Shawshank Redemption with its bittersweet ending, Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane (1999) is one of the only films that ends happily, with the release of the falsely accused boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Denzel Washington). Besides Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, I can only think of a few comedies. In the absurdist Three Kings (by David O. Russell, 1999), some American soldiers in search of gold bullion are taken captive and subjected to US-style torture in Iraq. Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law (1986), which recounts the story of three rather hapless escapees, has some comical moments. Of course, I should also mention the prison episodes from Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936).

Though not a comedy, I Love You Philip Morris (by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2009) falls into the category of the fantastic and improbable. It is based on the real-life human chameleon Steven Russell who has been both a cop and a prisoner (with four escapes to his credit) and who has impersonated by turns a lawyer, a doctor, an FBI agent and the CFO of a healthcare company (he is now in a Texas prison serving a 144-year sentence).

There has been more realism, perhaps, in the popular HBO TV series about the Baltimore drug scene The Wire, which ran from 2002-2008 and whose creator David Simon is interviewed in the documentary The House I Live In. The HBO Oz series (1997-2003) imagines a unit of the Oswald State Correctional Facility (“Emerald City”) that experiments with new forms of rehabilitation; it ultimately descends into a nightmare. The current Orange is the New Black is set in a women’s prison. A series from the 1990s, Every Mother’s Son, is notable for its depiction of police brutality. Television has also contributed the Moyers and Company report “Incarceration Nation” (2013) and the 2013 Al Jazeera report, “Women Behind Bars.”

Two recent international films (in addition to the one by Herzog) are also worth a look. Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (2009) is a French film about a young Arab who becomes a hardened criminal in order to survive the gang culture in prison. Although a fiction, it is shot with great realism. The Taviani Brothers’ Caesar Must Die (2012) is a moving Italian documentary about the staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with prisoners. The interviews with the prisoners are as revealing as similar interviews in Dhamma Brothers. Going beyond film, in 2014 Chris Hedges produced Caged, a theatrical montage of prisoners’ first-hand experiences in a New Jersey maximum security prison (http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_plays_the_thing_20131215).

*As of July 1, 2014, most of the titles are available from amazon.com or Netflix.com. Broken on All Sides can be ordered from brokenonallsides.com; Framing an Execution streams at mediated.org. The Al Jazeera report on women streams at
http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/faultlines/2013/09/women-behind-bars-201393010326721994.html.

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