Rounded With a Sleep
by Dan Schneider

There are documentaries that gain their stature not in their innovatory or revelatory power, but simply in the fact that they tell important things in a straightforward manner. Such is the case with the 2006 BBC documentary Shakespeare Behind Bars, written and directed by Hank Rogerson, and produced by Jilann Spitzmiller, a married documentary team. Unlike such documentaries as Scared Straight, this one does not so obviously buy into its subjects’ mission. One of the major flaws of Scared Straight, as much of a landmark documentary as it was, was that the film overstated the case for the program which showed lifers at Rahway State Prison trying to intimidate young thugs into going straight. This film, however, does not quite buy into the premise that the program that helps produce a Shakespeare play once a year is a cure-all for the varied ills that have driven the prisoners behind bars, despite what its detractors claim.

The 93-minute-long film is set in Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, in LaGrange, Kentucky, and given the assorted chronologies portrayed, it seems to have actually taken place over the years of 2002 and 2003. The play chosen is the Bard’s The Tempest. Given its island setting and theme of redemption, it seems a natural for a troupe of actors ensconced behind bars to perform. Since the play is well known, there is no need to detail it, and, in fact, the film shows very little of the eventual production (and a good thing, for their acting abilities are very, very limited), choosing instead to focus on the behind-the-scenes moments where the prisoners choose their own roles, and the moments of personal revelation by each prisoner. Here is where the film has run into some trouble with critics, for oftentimes the film has been reduced to bleeding heart liberalism run amok, trying to humanize pedophiles, rapists, killers, and armed robbers. But, in fact, director Rogerson’s hands-off approach to the film works, for the audience gets a good sense of which prisoners are genuine and which are fakes. And trust me, the fakes are there!

The prisoners who seem to really have learnt something of themselves via their incarceration and rehabilitation, including participation in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, include Hal Cobb (playing Prospero), a wife killer and closeted homosexual; Jerry ‘Big G’ Guenthner (Caliban), a cop killer turned mentor for younger prisoners; and Sammie Byron (Triculo), who killed a lover, but seems to have finally realized that he was the reason he was troubled, not his surroundings or colleagues. But, the film really shines when it focuses on the phonies and borderline cases, like Leonard Ford (Antonio), a pedophile whom the viewer is never quite sure if he's gaming the film for his own ends; as well as a couple of other prisoners shown in brief bits, who obviously screw up their lives. One, a double lifer, ends up killing himself after being sent to ‘the hole,’ aka solitary confinement. Then there are other prisoners not so easily identifiable as con men, such as Red (Miranda), of whom we never learn his crime, and who seems to be a put-on in one moment, and sincere in the next.

Yet, the thing that sticks most in the mind is that many of these prisoners are actually deeply introspecting themselves. They are not the mallgoing capitalistic zombies that populate the real world. Of course, they really need to introspect more than the unincarcerated. Yet this introspection does not inhabit the film itself. By that I mean that the film never really explores the effectiveness of the program, merely having an addendum that claims the program has been effective. While I understand Rogerson’s aims for his film, the fact that the film displays skepticism about: the individual prisoners, yet seems to show no such skepticism toward the whole program, is one of the reasons that the claims of dimwitted liberalism have been hurled against the film.

Another thing that prevents this film from engaging more deeply than it probably should is that it is a no-frills documentary. The cinematography is rather pedestrian: the only shot that sticks in the mind is the film’s ending, where, after the play, the cons are bodysearched, and they fade, one by one, from the film and hallway, as a prison guard locks the place up. The chronological structure and interviews with the individual prisoners, after brief introductions, are also rather predictable, as is the film’s ending with a recap of what state of grace (or not) the prisoners featured are currently in (at least as of the DVD’s 2006 release). On the plus side is some hauntingly appropriate music by James Wesley Stemple. Rarely has a documentary used music as effectively as a fiction film. And it should be noted that music is present in perhaps only 10-15% of the picture, so that when it is deployed, it is in moments of supreme synaesthesia.

I am hardly of the bleeding heart persuasion, but the film does make a strong case for needed reform in out penal system, as well as better models to follow than the current parole system (the scenes of Sammie Byron’s denial of parole are very affecting, and, given the glimpses we see of him in performance, it’s hard to believe that he could be acting as he does to convince the viewers that he is a man of passions, when he’s, at best, a barely mediocre stage actor), for it shows how the differences between prisoners and layfolk are not always those of kind, but more often those of degree. That this is also a major theme of The Tempest is, well….you know. Shakespeare Behind Bars breaks no new boundaries in its art form, and is not a particularly profound work of art, but it is a quality piece of film that has its moments. Prospero knows.

©2009 Dan Schneider