Prison Films and the Idea of Two Worlds
On the southwest corner of Washington Square Park, the logic of the carceral state plays out over a game of chess. Nahshon Thomas, an aging black man with thick, plastic-rimmed glasses, invites passers-by to come to the chess table, and a young, white teenager takes up the challenge. The older man sits with steady posture—a testament to his confidence and calm focus. He takes a drag from his cigarette as he makes his next move.
While the meeting of strangers at the chess table is a familiar scene in New York City, Brett Story, the director of The Prison in Twelve Landscapes (2016), does not merely observe the scene and walk away; she asks questions and listens as Thomas describes where and how he learned the strategies to beat his opponent at chess. He was in jail in 1982 playing against a fellow inmate who was especially good and, feeling increasingly frustrated by his losses, he humbled himself and asked if the player could share some insight into how the game works. Having served his time, he now teaches and plays chess in the park for money. Continuing his account, he says, “If you see any black man out here on the street hustling, trying to sell something, he’s been to jail.” This may be an off-the-cuff observation, but it speaks directly to the intimate connection between the contemporary system of mass incarceration and harsh conditions of unemployment for Black men in America.
Anyone walking through Washington Square Park can observe the unjust share of joblessness and chronic poverty that is portioned out along racial lines; yet the economic, political, and ideological forces that determine this are less easy to perceive. A black man out on the street trying to sell something is simply more visible than the links between racial capitalism1 and the prison system. It is then surprising to witness, in this commonplace scene, the significant influence of the carceral state on the distribution of work and wages unfolding over a game of chess in Washington Square Park.
We are used to thinking about prison as a faraway and abstract site, disconnected from communities, and holding the undesirables that society is intent on forgetting. In order to acknowledge the ways the system of incarceration touches our lives, it is imperative to rethink our relationship to these distant places. Brett Story’s documentary The Prison in Twelve Landscapes kicks off Anthology Film Archives’ upcoming film series “Prison Images: Incarceration and the Cinema,” running from June 20 to July 8. While the series as a whole brings together provocative activist documentaries, films made by incarcerated people, commercial exploitation cinema, classic escape dramas, and more, one could say that it also acts as a foil to the movies showing alongside it. Although Story’s film is essentially about the American prison system, there is only one brief glimpse of an actual prison building. The rest of the films in the series, on the other hand, use the prison as their primary setting and the imprisoned people as their cast.
For The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, the very representation of the prison building and the bodies that inhabit it is a central concern. While mainstream movies and television largely take the image of a prison or of an imprisoned person for granted, this film asks us to question the purpose that is served by seeing images of prisons. Her film moves us to ask how the representation of the building itself and the people inside it inform our understanding not only of the conditions of incarceration, but also of the historical, material, and social relations that legitimize the existence of these conditions.
Prisons have been one of the key settings for movies ever since the earliest days of cinema. Among the first prison films is Edwin Porter’s 1901 short film Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison. Its primitive structure emphasizes the spectacular nature of many prison films: starting with two panoramic views of the exterior of Auburn Prison, the camera then moves to the interior, closer to the prisoners, guards, and narrative action. This movement from outside to inside is the same dramatic structure that underlies most prison films made since the early 20th century. Five dramas in Anthology’s series, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), A Man Escaped (1956), Terminal Island (1973), Penitentiary (1979), and Escape from Alcatraz (1979), all follow this same basic pattern. First, the camera gives the viewer a taste of life outside of the prison, then the camera follows the main character inside the prison building and records the dramatic action within. This opening provides both context and contrast for what will follow.
How can the imprisoned person endure the annihilating trauma of incarceration, except through the memory of past freedom or the dream of future freedom? The example of Hezzikia “Seldom Seen” Jackson in Jamaa Fanaka’s Penitentiary (1979) is an interesting case in point. Reading Tolstoy and listening to jazz while surrounded by images of African liberation leaders on his cell walls, Seldom Seen tries to forge an existence apart from the violence and brutality of his context. After 30 plus years within these dark, confined quarters, the gray-haired, raspy-voiced elder glories in the wisdom he has gained while in prison. He tells the film’s younger protagonist, Martel “Too Sweet” Gordone, the truth of what he has learned about freedom: “I now believe that I’m the one that’s free, the freest man in the world. The rest of the world is locked up. They’re locked out.”
The irony of this speech—pronounced in front of a poster of Malcolm X, Kwame Nkrumah, Eldridge Cleaver, Oginga Odinga, and Patrice Lumumba—is not hard to miss. Seldom Seen’s knowledge of the historical struggle for liberation comes up against his experience of decades of defeat within the limited world of the prison, warping his conception of freedom. He envisions an imaginary freedom that has no relation to the rest of the world, but what is more, his understanding of freedom endows incarceration with a semblance of liberation, and this facilitates his submission to the carceral order.
Images alone are not enough to move one to transform a system of unjust social relations, but the films in this series provide an opportunity to think about the prison system, and reflect on the strategies cinema can use to make visible the ways carceral power shapes our lives. What kinds of images, which forms of thought, what types of action will lead away from a society that finds mass incarceration acceptable and instead demands true freedom for all? The demand for freedom must go beyond images: it must surpass the viewer’s imagination, challenge existing structures of inequality and insist on new forms of social relations. These new forms of freedom—without prison bars, police brutality, poverty, the exploitation of land or control technologies—can create new forms of relating to the world and to one another in our shared reality.
1. Racial Capitalism: A term coined by Cedric Robinson in his seminal work Black Marxism: The Making Of the Black Radical Tradition (1983) in which he makes apparent how capitalism is inseparable from the racial categories it uses to maintain the system of exploitation and to create severe inequalities among human groups.