Remarkably, this weekend brings the release of two smart, well-acted dramas that look long and hard at a subject much ignored: how prison can become a tool of government policy. Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which won the Golden Camera (for best first feature) at Cannes and the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, chronicles the last six weeks of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, who starved himself to death in Northern Ireland’s Maze Prison in 1981 to protest his lack of status as a political prisoner. Closer to home, Tim Disney’s American Violet dramatizes the true story of Regina Kelly, a poor mother of four who dared to sue the district attorney of Robertson County, Texas, for civil rights violations after he locked her up in November 2000. The movies don’t share much in common stylistically—Hunger is largely a visual experience, American Violet a verbal one—but both draw power from their heroes, who assert their personhood against a system designed to crush it.
Sands hoped to martyr himself for the cause of a united Irish republic, and he succeeded in that, his death inspiring a fresh wave of defiance against the English. Hunger opens with the struggle between guards and imprisoned republicans already in progress: as part of the “blanket protest,” prisoners refuse to wear uniforms and instead wrap themselves in their bedding; as part of the “no-wash protest,” they piss through the doors of their cells and smear their own shit on the walls. A previous hunger strike has already failed, but this time Sands plans to stagger the strike, another loyalist following after him every two weeks so their serial deaths will sustain the public uproar. Midway through the movie there’s an epic 24-minute scene in which Sands (Michael Fassbender) defends his decision to a tough-minded priest (Liam Cunningham), but in the claustrophobic cell block the protesters have already internalized their cause so deeply that the world of words seems distant and inconsequential. In fact, Hunger often recalls Robert Bresson’s metaphysical prison drama A Man Escaped (1956) in its asceticism, dwelling on Sands’s incredible self-denial as he slowly wastes away.
The movie has been denounced in the UK for celebrating an IRA terrorist, but in fact McQueen focuses at first on Ray Lohan, a tight-lipped prison guard who, like all his coworkers, is a terror target. In the opening scene, Lohan (played with wordless depth by Stuart Graham) studies himself in the bathroom mirror, dresses for work, and checks underneath his car for a bomb, his wife watching anxiously from the front window. At work McQueen isolates Lohan against a brick wall, snow dusting him as he blows cigarette smoke into the sky. The first dialogue of note is an archival voice-over of Margaret Thatcher declaring, “There is no such thing as political murder, political bombing, or political violence. There is only criminal murder, criminal bombing, and criminal violence.” Lohan’s sentiments on the subject are never made explicit, but there’s no question that something eats at him. Later in the movie, after throwing a punch at Sands but hitting the wall, he soaks his hands in cold water, studying his bruised and bleeding knuckles.
The full force of the British Empire comes down on the protestors near the midpoint of the movie, after they reject a compromise measure negotiated by the IRA and trash their cells. Preparing for a cavity search of all protesters, the warden orders jackbooted riot police into the cell block, and they line the halls, rhythmically beating their batons against their Plexiglas shields. Guards hurl the prisoners out of their cells naked and push them down the halls through the gauntlet of police, who batter them with their shields, beat them to the floor, and kick them into the next room. When one prisoner head-butts a guard, he’s thrown to the ground, and a crazed riot policeman goes to town on him. Sands, dropped back in his cell after similar treatment, rolls over onto his back, staring at the ceiling, his mouth full of blood. In a chilling overhead shot, McQueen studies his blank, beatific expression. Sands hungered all right, but not for food.
Regina Kelly may not have been willing to martyr herself, but her defiance is still impressive. Taking audience questions about American Violet at the Telluride film festival, she alleged that even after district attorney John Paschall settled out of court with her and the other plaintiffs in an ACLU suit, he enforced an informal employment blacklist against her in her hometown of Hearne, Texas. She said she refused to be driven out of town.
On the morning of the police raid, Kelly was arrested at her workplace and charged with felony cocaine distribution, though no drugs were found on her person or in her home. Her name was on a list of 27 people, all but one of them black, whose arrests Paschall had ordered based on the word of a single informant who later turned out to be unreliable. The characters’ names have been changed for the film, but the particulars are the same: believing at first that the cops are after her for delinquent parking tickets, Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie) finds herself in the slammer looking at 16 to 25 years, with bail set at $70,000 and a court date six months away.
In contrast to Hunger, American Violet is packed with dialogue and issues, and it’s most provocative when dealing with the dangers of plea bargaining. Though the Sixth Amendment guarantees citizens a trial by jury, more than 90 percent of American prisoners have accepted plea bargains, and the movie suggests how easily someone can be railroaded into a sentence he doesn’t deserve. Saddled with an unresponsive public defender, Dee is offered a Faustian bargain: she can plead guilty, receive a ten-year probation, pay a small fine, and return to her children immediately, but as a convicted felon she’ll lose her voting rights and be ineligible for government assistance. She turns down the deal, and after her bail is reduced to $10,000, her devoted mother (Alfre Woodard) manages to get her out of jail. But her friend Gladys (Pamala Tyson)—based on Erma Faye Stewart, the other woman arrested in the 2000 drug bust—accepts the state’s terms. Even after the indictments are thrown out, Gladys retains her felon status, and it gets her expelled from the housing project.
This flaw in the justice system might affect anyone, but American Violet shows how easily it can be racialized in a place where hardened social attitudes combine with drugs and poverty to create a permanent black underclass. “Down here you make enemies for life,” spits the young public defender who’s muffed Dee’s case, bristling at the questions of her ACLU attorney (Tim Blake Nelson) and the conflicted local lawyer who’s signed on to represent her (Will Patton, in the film’s best performance). After filing her lawsuit, Dee becomes a target for the icy DA, Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe), who takes advantage of city inspections to get her fired from one job after another and threatens her with a child custody hearing. It’s harassment pure and simple, yet it seems all of a piece with the systematic drug sweeps that have been going on since Dee was a child and the plea bargaining that sets people up to fail. After Beckett’s drug cases fall apart, one reporter asks him about the defendants who’d already pleaded guilty and were sentenced.
“What about them?” snaps the DA. “They pled guilty.”v
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