Tag Archives: prison movies

Crown Heights

Extrapolating from known DNA exoneration, it is estimated that conservatively, at least 1% of prisoners are wrongfully convicted, which works out to over 20 000 people. But these are estimates drawn only from overturned verdicts, not the ones that are never discovered. The Innocence Project called 2018 “a record year in exonerations” and while we applaud their efforts, what it really boils down to is another example of how the system is badly broken.

Crown Heights is the story Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), a man wrongfully convicted of murder based on no evidence whatsoever, and pretty flimsy hearsay. Numerous people told the cops and the court that they had the wrong man, and in fact the right man had indeed been arrested, but his plea deal refusal meant Warner got tried beside him instead of released. What a technicality to get sent away to prison for. Even the presiding judge seemed to agree, sentencing Warner to the minimum allowable time (15 years to life), and the actual bad guy to the maximum allowable time (9 years to life, because he was just a few months younger). Despite his innocence, Warner languishes in prison for decades; the only reason he’s not completely forgotten is his best friend Carl King (Nnamdi Asomugha) who works tirelessly on the outside, with many personal sacrifices made, to free his friend. His wife feels like she and the kids play second fiddle to his crusade, but King knows that his friend is innocent, and does not know how to simply live with that.

Crown Heights is based on a true story. A true, very sad, very depressing story. We know this genre well by now, but it’s important to remember that behind every film are dozens of real people wasting away behind bars for crimes they did not commit. And of course these people are overwhelmingly likely to be black because the system simply does not work for those who cannot afford to adequately defend themselves. Innocence is a concept that can be bought; guilt and poverty are linked by circumstance.

When we say people die from racism, we don’t just mean the cops who keep killing black people. We mean that black people are 4 times more likely to die from COVID-19. Black people make up a disproportionate number of prisoner executions, and they’re more likely to receive the death penalty when the victim is white. America has created a ‘medical apartheid,’ with African-American infant mortality rates 2.2 times higher and black babies 3.2 times more likely to die from complications due to low birth weight, and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) (Incidentally, in Canada we have socialized medicine – it is free for everyone – while Americans have a privatized system which means if you can’t afford medical treatment, you don’t get it, but the truth is, the Canadian government spends less on health care per capita than the U.S. does! It makes NO SENSE).

Writer/Director Matt Ruskin first heard Colin’s story on the radio show This American Life. He was so moved by the story that he couldn’t stop thinking about it for weeks. I’m not sure his script quite gets to the heart of the story. To me, this is more than just another broken system story. It’s a real testament to enduring friendship and loyalty and I wish the movie had balanced things between the two a little more equally. But even if Ruskin doesn’t have much to add to the genre, he does present an affecting and effective film, mostly because he doesn’t overplay his hand. The temptation toward melodrama must be strong, but he avoids it in favour of a quiet kind of power. Nnamdi Asomugha shows us focus, determination, and steadfast support. Stanfield manages to find his character somewhere between anguish and apathy, rage and resignation, despair and desperation. The story earns our attention and rewards us with new trains of thought.

The Free World

Mo (Boyd Holbrook) is recently released from prison where he served hard time for a crime he didn’t commit. Reintegration to the outside world is hard on him, and the local cops are even harder. His only friend is his boss at the animal shelter (Octavia Spencer), but she is at a loss to explain to him how this outside world has so few rules that a man can beat his dog to death without consequences.

thumbnail_24895One night he finds a woman (Elisabeth Moss) in the shelter, covered in blood. It turns out the two have a lot in common; an abusive marriage can feel an awful lot lot like jail. To keep her safe, he risks his own freedom to hide her, but his crappy apartment makes for a terrible hideout, and the two have to go on the run to stay ahead of the law. And you know what? It’s a pretty sucky world out there.

There’s a lot of comparisons to be drawn from the movie – the shelter’s cages like prison cells for bad dogs; Moss a puppy frightened of her owner. And it’s painful to admit that the ‘free world’ isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that prisoners may be more predictable than random citizens.

Jason Lew’s screenplay is interesting because it leaves much unsaid and really forces the viewer to question what’s important. But leaving us in the dark is a bit alienating, and we don’t always engage with the characters as we should. The acting’s not the problem here, but the direction might be. The Free World sometimes feels like two different movies – strongest in the quiet parts, and tonally uneven in the more actiony sequences. I really liked how the movie started out, I liked this portrait of a man not knowing his place outside of a prison cell, not knowing who he is outside of the system, and not really being allowed the room to breathe and discover. The Free World is cynical. More cynical than a wrongly convicted born-again-Muslim who sleeps best in the confines of a closet. It’s a toughie.


03_bronson_blu-rayTom Hardy portrays England’s most notorious prisoner in a film that, through theatrical fictionalization, becomes an indictment of celebrity culture and a tribute to the cult of personality.

A young man named Michael Peterson robs a post office and ends up serving three decades in solitary confinement. How does this come to pass? Well it turns out that in prison, Peterson adopts a survival mechanism we in the business call “being a truly awful person.” He relishes his bad reputation and works at it, actively.

He fights prisoners and guards equally, Hardy often seen “lubing up” with war paint, aka, butter. A real problem prisoner, he’s sent to serve out his sentence, now doubled, in segregation. Upon his release, he takes up bare-knuckled boxing and a pseudonym more suitable to his ultra-violent alter-ego: Charles Bronson is born (again). A mere 69 days later, he’s back in prison and worse than ever, instigating some pretty crazy hostage situations if the movie can be believed.

The film does an interesting thing where it has these asides where Hardy appears to be in a one-man Broadway show, painted into the various characters we’re introduced to, proud as a 06_bronson_blu-raypeacock to show off his many crimes, his escalating violence (in reality, he is still imprisoned to this day). The surreal soliloquies are little bites peppered among a buffet of horrid reality. It reminded me of a freak show, though I suppose that’s the message colouring the medium (or was it the strongman’s physique, or the ringmaster’s mustache?) I wasn’t always sure what to make of it and felt it was probably a bit overstylized, but if nothing else it is trying to be genre-defying, and it is.

The film makes no excuses for inexcusable behaviour, which is fortunate, but still manages to leave some upset in its wake – that old art vs exploitation theme snakes its way into this movie, and it’s hard to shake. But it is firm in one respect: whatever the spectacle, Tom Hardy is undoubtedly the star.




On a related note, the real prisoner Charles Bronson was transferred to Parkhurst in 1976 after trying to poison the guy in the cell next to him. At his new facility, he met the Kray twins, who would become his lifelong friends – “the best two guys I ever met” (not actual good guys, of course, they were England’s mafia). Tom Hardy is about to portray both Kray twins in the movie Legend, set to screen next month at TIFF.



Starred Up

I’m a sucker for any art form that has grit, character, heart and integrity. Starred Up has it all. Set in a modern day prison (Mark, this is what a real prison looks like) the story picks up as a 19 year old (Jack O’Connell) is sent to an adult prison for an undisclosed crime. From the beginning I was enthralled by the young O’Connell who not only plays his character with intensity and accuracy, but manages to be quite endearing regardless of his aggressive and sometimes unpredictable behaviour. It doesn’t take time for O’Connell to feel at home within the starredpenitentiary walls. It’s almost like coming to prison was all part of a master plan to reunite with his estranged father. The cast, which I did not recognize by name but rather by previous works is composed of Rupert Friend (Homeland) Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Night Rises, Killing Them Softly)  is also quite stellar.  Mendelsohn, who is  serving time in prison, is tasked with playing O’Connell’s caring but ultimately inadequate father.

As part of the prison routine, O’Connell is forced to attend group therapy. In comes Rupert Friend, an ultra-caring counselor who seems to have O’Connell’s best interest at heart and shows hints of a checkered past himself and turns out to be our delinquent’s only chance at redemption.  It’s safe to assume O’Connell has very little upbringing. His strengths consist of aggressiveness, fearlessness and a strong will to stand up for himself amongst a cohort of rapists, murderers and thieves.

For me, the true villain of this film is poor parenting, which left me with existential questions. For example, is it fair for a child to be thrown in prison because his father was an incompetent fuck? Is the prison system the right place for most criminals? Especially young ones. Are there any decent alternatives? And also, why is prison culture something we accept as a society? We are all aware that people get raped, stabbed, shanked, shived, beaten and even killed in prison. So why is that acceptable? Because they’re are criminals? That doesn’t fly with me.

Throughout the movie the director, David Mackenzie, tackles themes of abandonment, social justice, family and in the end our humanity. We all go through trials and tribulation but unfortunately who you were born to will, more often than not, tell you what your trials will be and what tribulations await.

I totally recommend this film to anyone who enjoys good cinema. The script, the cinematography (which I know very little about) the acting, and the soul of this movie were all very satisfying to me.


7.5  out of 10