It’s been two years since Ava DuVernay released her inquisitive, era-responsive documentary The 13th, a sobering polemic on the country’s historically contradictory relationship to the prioritization of its prisons. Rehabilitation is a misnomer in practice, and the prison industrial complex persists as integral to the broader mechanisms which rob citizens of color of their freedom and agency—most pointedly, Black Americans (and even more specifically, Black men). The 13th is challenging, not because the material is academic or lofty, but because its conclusions are effective, disarming, and its remnant solutions minimal. While not a detriment to that great film—and it is a great film, whose release date brushed the formative fracas of our current president’s electoral win—it functioned as a sort of citizen’s mouthpiece when it was a very good time to have a stable and secure one of those. But the essay in DuVernay’s piece is a bit broader than Survivors Guide To Prison, a film that, while possibly insufficient to its title, has a unique angle, extending its lens to the incarcerated, the formerly incarcerated, the individuals working to help them, and additional sideline commentary to round it all out.
The first thing that jumps out about this film is that it is highly, highly stylized, pecked with scratched negatives transitioning scenes with burnt-out bulbs, shuddering fonts introducing every single conversational callout, and a (somewhat) random-seeming assortment of Hollywood and hip-hop faces—everyone from Ice T to Macklemore to Danny Glover to B Real to Jesse Williams manifest for talking-head-time and, in the latter case, sometimes only appear for less than a minute. A lot of it feels overblown, and the majority of these faces arrive to the doc with a very prepared, hallowed set of statements that are delivered with a performative panache, and no small amount of menace.
Considerably more interesting than these recognizable faces, however, is the duo who function as the film’s narrative center. Bruce Liskor and Reggie Cole were both formerly wrongfully incarcerated for violent crimes and ended up with inflated bids; 16 and 27 years, respectively (take a guess as to which one of them is Black). Unlike the aforementioned actors, their storytelling is more compelling, even brutally profound and deeply felt, although there is considerable artifice in how they are presented to the viewer. They are interviewed in dark cells (I presume these are actual sets? Maybe not), often wearing bright orange prison jumpers, in a manner that reaches meekly for Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs To Fly and its Vietnamese POW camp reconstruction, but mostly just feels somewhat off. It’s not a fault of their “performance,” but their charisma and truth are conversationally evident without the applied smoke and mirrors.
Both DuVernay’s doc and this one are high-functioning, gut-punching treatises on a life-thrashing system. But maybe Survivors is reaching for a certain attention-deficit audience, hoping that a recognizable face positioned three inches from the camera in startling closeup relating prison statistics to you as font fireworks fire off in split-second cuts throughout will somehow penetrate the frantic twitter-refreshing fog. This aesthetic doesn’t, however, weaken Survivors’ details and overall thesis, or its emotionally-fraught content. It comes off a little like a former tough guy trying to mentor the youth of his neighborhood in their own apparent language which, incidentally, describes one of the many fascinating real-life people you’ll meet here in addition to Liskor and Cole. Still though…watching as an adult who only refreshes twitter every few minutes instead of five seconds (#growth), a lot of the film’s “extra-ness” is eye-rolling at best and nearly hackneyed at worst, threatening to compromise some of its revolutionary, timely message.
I spoke about goals before, something the film is focused on. The last twenty minutes or so detail some options for rehabilitation/reformation (recovery?) that I’ve personally never heard of, even academically. I regret this neglect, because these options are inspiring, and provide some of Survivors best moments. You get to see a roomfull of prisoners practice Shakespeare together, or listen in tears as the mother of a murder victim relates her raw story directly to their obedient regret-wracked faces—there’s nothing smoke and mirrors about these scenes. The instructors, activists, and teachers involved in the prison system are the more compelling individuals in the doc’s cadre, people on the ground floor who do not have to think for one second before explaining the myriad rehabilitation options better than imprisonment that they’ve observed in practice, or the way capitalism benefits daily from the multitude of Black men convicted—let alone those wrongfully convicted—of crimes in the US. On that note, if the film has a second major topic, it’s police corruption, and dilates topics like innocence projects and insufficient training and expectations for police officers who hold human lives and futures in their woebegone grasp.
Danny Trejo acts as a form of MC, being one of the most prevalent faces on the screen. Recognizable, reliable, and articulate, the formerly-incarcerated actor and entrepreneur is probably the likeliest to serve as the face of the documentary, and his passionate views on the prison system are empirically informed, which sets him apart from many of the other talking heads in the film. That being said, much like the rest of the celebs, there isn’t a tremendous amount of charisma or character expressed in the relation of these sober anecdotes and facts; it’s a grim subject even Q-tip and Trejo can’t enliven, but this is by design.
Survivors Guide To Prison looks to continue what filmmaker Matthew Cooke started with his 2012 doc How to Make Money Selling Drugs, another hiply-structured but fact-based treatise on a damaged system. I think, in the case of both films, there is something eye-grabbing but potentially misleading about the title, a crafty hook which expands into an ostentatious but considerably detailed endeavor. I do like the idea of an accessible film looking to inform and educate using multiple approaches, because the facts remain real and the stories are critically important.
While, at times, coming off like a smash-cut-laden television documentary, Survivors Guide To Prison is a thought-provoking video essay. While it often explores an important topic with a cast-iron hand, it yet succeeds at delivering its revolutionary insights. I think it pairs nicely with Ava DuVernay’s doc, which has considerably more class and poise, and I hope it reaches a streaming service like Netflix where it can communicate its personal and politically hopeful message to more viewers.
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Leonardo Faierman is the senior film editor at Black Girl Nerds. Born in Buenos Aires, raised in Queens, Bar Mitzvah'd at Young Israel, buried under student loans. He writes video game, music, film, and movie reviews, as well as poetry, comic books, bad dreams and good copy. He's 1/5th of the comics podcast #BlackComicsChat and 1/2 of horror film podcast The Scream Squad.