Penitentiary

Two facets of this film really save it from being nothing but unpleasant exploitation. Well, three, but two are a step above typical exploitation.

The first is the character of Seldom Seen, who gives two impassioned monologues about his life behind bars. While he argues that he is not ready or able to face the outside world, while he argues for an almost Buddhist approach to life behind bars, refusing to let his balanced mindset be threatened by temptations, his character and presence present an argument that the penal system is not able to or unwilling to prepare prisoners, especially long term prisoners, for returning to the outside world.

As a kid, I used to walk across my hometown from school to my dad's work when I had after school events. As I did, I would ponder the effect of streets on my mind. I didn't think of it this way at the time, as the concepts had never been presented to me, but I was exploring the idea of liminal space, and how streets were a form of liminal space to me, They were a symbolic barrier, a socialized barrier that affected the way I perceived the world. This is a rather small example of how human beings can be conditioned to view their world in patterns and limitations, but watching Seldom Seen passionately speak about how the world had changed without him, how he was nobody outside those walls, I couldn't help but think about this. If the idea of streets would alter my young perceptions the way they did, imagine how spending 35 years in prison must affect a person's perceptions of the world.

I have a friend who has served jury duty more than his fair share due to the quirks of the system, I suppose (I myself have never done so). At his first go around, they asked him during one selection if he would have a problem with convicting someone of second degree murder, and he replied that he would. He told me he explained to them his objections to the racist justice system and the idea of prison itself. I have seldom felt pride in anyone at all--it just doesn't occur to me, I suppose, and I am uncomfortable with the feeling--but I'll be goddamned if I didn't think he was just nothing but awesome in that moment. He also convinced me in that moment of how right he was. I was and am not a fan of our justice system, and certainly, I had misgivings about prison. But until that moment, my focal complaint about the penal system had always been the death penalty. After that, I came around to broadening my objections more thoroughly. All this is to say that Seldom Seen put me also in mind of that moment, for he makes a strong argument by his presence and mental state that the prison system is inherently cruel and unusual.

The other quality of this film that stood out is a few direct and indirect references it made that compared, without drawing too much attention to it, prison to slavery. The staggering disproportion of African-Americans in prison in America is reflective of a white supremacist society, and the combination of cheap if not free labor it provides and the disenfranchisement felony convictions cause people means that the system is merely a modern form of slavery, a stain on America's soul perpetrated and repeated by legal loopholes (read the 13th Amendment and it's right there). It's not only legal to enslave another person in the modern era, but it is still wholly racially motivated. This film doesn't explore this idea deeply, but it touches on it just enough to be a reminder of this fact.

The third quality is that the film is hideously violent in a way that is shocking and compelling at once. The boxing matches are disgusting, sweaty, bloody affairs that are disquieting to behold, and the aesthetic brutality is fitting for a film about prison and injustice. Too bad that these three qualities are partnered with some bad transphobic prison stereotypes, gratuitous and exploitative sex, and sexist tropes, as well as some baffling characterization (that guard lieutenant running an illegal boxing tournament that exploits African-American prisoners in an inherently unjust penal system sure is a nice, fair fellow?!) that avoids some depth to the racial issues present. The film also spends most of its time on those brutal bouts, leaving most of the subtext deeply buried.

February count: 34/28