Academy Award-winning director Roger Ross Williams explores America's prison system in documentary 'American Jail'

Chris Byrd / Catholic News Service    |    06.27.2018
Category: Movies and TV

NEW YORK (CNS) -- Personal, impassioned, but overly tendentious, the documentary "American Jail" premieres Sunday, July 1, 8-10 p.m. EDT on CNN.

Academy Award winner Roger Ross Williams wrote and directed "American Jail." Computer animation and a wide range of interviews with criminal justice experts augment the auteur's own commentary, which describes his peripatetic journey to diagnose the problem of mass incarceration in the United States -- and explore possible remedies.

Williams' sojourn begins with a return to his hometown of  Easton, Pennsylvania, where the 55-year-old African-American grew up in the 1960s and '70s.

Raised by a single mother, who, "like other determined women without resources, cleaned the homes of well-to-do white women," the filmmaker says in high school he and his friends began selling drugs, and "taking what we wanted from rich, white college boys."

Williams drove the getaway car, and his best friend, Tommy Alvin, "rode shotgun." The "fiery words" of the late black writer James Baldwin inspired Williams to obtain a journalism degree from New York University. Leaving Easton, Williams escaped the destiny of the other broken men he knew during his youth, who were in and out of jail and perpetually absent from "weddings, birthdays, graduations, funerals."

The director's survival in Easton depended on "hiding my homosexuality." But, because it compelled him to leave his hometown, that reality, Williams believes, "may have saved my life."

Catholic viewers will likely feel sympathetic toward the filmmaker because of the discrimination he experienced. And they may understand why he feels his sexual orientation spared him an unfortunate fate. But they will need to evaluate Williams' attitudes about his sexuality carefully in light of church teaching.

In addition to homosexuality, "American Jail" also deals with violence, including murder, police brutality and the mistreatment of prisoners, and substance abuse. Given the strong language and racial and sexual slurs that also occasionally surface in the program, it can only be endorsed for adults.

Alvin, in and out of jail his entire adult life for petty offenses, wasn't as lucky as his friend. His suicide at age 52 prompted Williams to confront "the all-consuming, all powerful, all American jail."

Michelle Alexander's 2010 book "The New Jim Crow," and director Ava DuVernay's ("Selma") 2016 film "13th" raised mass incarceration's profile as a national issue, engendering the rare bipartisan desire in the United States to reform the criminal justice system. And "American Jail" is an insistent plea to achieve that reform.

The documentary reveals disparities that should trouble viewers. Prosecutors, for example, are 75 times more likely to charge black defendants in crimes that call for mandatory minimum sentences. As hospitalizations of the mentally ill plummeted, moreover, their incarceration rate exploded. That reality, former Baltimore policeman Peter Moskos says, "is a moral strike against us."

In emphasizing the plight of offenders caught up in an unjust system, however, "American Jail" loses sight of the crucial role the community and crime survivors should play in reforming the process. This is most noticeable when Williams visits men serving life sentences in Massachusetts.

The meeting is described as an attempt at restorative justice. But that assumes others besides the convicts will be heard. In their absence, the session appears to be little more than group therapy.

Williams also feels too strongly about the subject to add nuance and balance to his commentary in the hope of winning over those who disagree with him. Instead, Williams' sense of urgency leads him to try to shame the audience into action. To the detriment of his cause, his stridency may have the opposite effect.

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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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