High-Profile Filmmakers Take Aim at U.S. Criminal ‘Justice’ System With Sundance Documentaries

Rexa Vella

High-Profile Filmmakers Take Aim at U.S. Criminal ‘Justice’ System With Sundance Documentaries

In an election year when civil rights are being threatened, authoritarianism is spreading around the globe and minorities are a popular political target, it’s no wonder that films exploring the U.S. criminal justice system are everywhere you look in the Sundance Film Festival lineup.

“There’s so much inequality and injustice in the justice system,” says “God Save Texas: Hometown Prison” director Richard Linklater. “There’s a lot to be outraged by and examined.” Variety spoke with him and other filmmakers such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Debra Granik and Yance Ford about their Park City projects — when taken together, they paint a devastating and sometimes hopeful picture of contemporary policing, criminal trials, incarceration and rehabilitation.

Linklater’s “Prison,” inspired by Lawrence Wright’s book “God Save Texas,” is the first feature in a doc trilogy about his home state, debuting Jan. 23 in Park City and late February on HBO and Max. Though you wouldn’t know it from the pleasant friends he interviews, or comedies like “Dazed and Confused” and “Bernie” that he filmed there, his hometown of Huntsville is the unofficial capitol of the state’s prison system, with the most executions in Texas, which is the leading state for executions in the nation by far.

“It’s a humanitarian crisis, not just for the people being executed, but a lot of other people and their families,” Linklater says. “It’s a big industry, spreading a lot of pain to a lot of people who have to [work there and] participate in it from every angle. Unless you’re a psychopath, you’re not equipped to be part of murder. It’s a real soul crusher.”

The impact of the criminal justice system on family members of convicts is examined in “12 Years a Slave” star Ejiofor’s sophomore feature as a writer/director, “Rob Peace.” In this true story, an adaptation of Jeff Hobbs’ biography “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” a poor Black prodigy gets a sponsorship to attend Yale, only to turn to drug dealing to help overturn his father’s conviction for a double murder that he may not have committed.

“His father’s case leads directly to his journey, because in trying to prove his father’s innocence and get him out of prison, he requires financing for lawyers and so on,” Ejiofor says. “That has an impact in the decisions that he makes at Yale. So the entire arc of the film, in terms of his father’s life and imprisonment, directly affects Rob’s decisions in a very real and immediate way.

“The key element for me is whether the criminal justice and policing system can serve Black communities in a better way, where they can have a fuller faith and trust in the system,” he adds. “Or is the system kind of broken in this way? And if it is, it has a terrible, lasting generational impact. That is, in a way, what this film is talking about. The hope is that some of this can actually be repaired, as opposed to doing away with it or trying to completely rebuild the ship.” Republic Pictures is repping sales on the feature, which premieres Jan. 22.

Granik spent eight years following a group of ex-cons find success as fitness instructors in her multipart doc “Conbody VS Everybody,” which examines the dangerous path parolees face when reentering society. But what shocked Granik the most was how they landed in prison in the first place. “If you live in any kind of ghetto, rural or urban, cut off from the goods and services that middle- and upper-class people commonly enjoy in their childhood, the pipeline to incarceration is nuts,” she says. “It’s excruciating, terrifying, dystopian. The profiteering from our carceral system is utterly shocking. It makes ‘The Hunger Games’ look kind of light, frankly.” Two episodes of the doc debut Jan. 23 at the fest, with Participant and Cinetic repping sales.

Perhaps no Sundance film investigates the history and machinery behind this pipeline as thoroughly as Yance Ford’s doc “Power,” which premiered Jan. 18 in Park City before its Netflix release, expected sometime between mid-May and early June. And while growing up in a town filled with prisons made Linklater’s doc personal, Ford’s interest in the criminal justice system hit far closer to home.

“There’s never been a time when I haven’t thought about police in my adult life, and I think that that’s true for many Black Americans, but it’s especially true for me as a storyteller,” he says. “I started thinking about the role of policing in American life when there were detectives sitting on the couch at my parents’ house explaining why the case wasn’t going to go to trial — the case being my brother’s murder.”

Ford turned that 1992 tragedy — made far worse by harassment, indifferent cops and an all-white grand jury that refused to indict a mechanic who claimed the killing was in self-defense — into a 2017 doc, “Strong Island,” that earned him an Oscar nomination. “Power” takes a more academic but similarly compelling approach, using interviews with academics and others to make the case that “police are the manifestation of the power of the government that most people will have the most frequent interactions with,” he says. “Underserved communities, communities that have been beset by crime have been divested of all other support. And the only thing that they’ve been left with is police. In [these] places, police are in the government because there is no office or number to call when you need a service other than 911.

“It’s because politicians have surrendered their responsibility for solving social issues,” he argues. “There is no more war on poverty, no more mass movements toward getting people who are unemployed back into the workforce, or to ensure equitable education that will lead to someone’s ability to support themselves. The government has thrown up its hands and said, ‘We cannot solve these things, so we are going to make poverty, unemployment, underemployment and being housed outside all crimes. [We’ll] put it under the rubric of policing, because we can’t figure out a way to solve these problems.’”

“Power” uses archival footage to show “people who are subject to violence, coercion and control at the hands of police that it has been like this for a very long time,” Ford says. “And when you contain and control other people for a living, what does it do to you? When you watch [former policeman] Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of George Floyd for almost 10 minutes and take his life, one of the things that runs through my mind is: ‘What has policing done to this man?’”

The fairness of criminal trials gets examined in J.M. Harper’s feature directorial debut, “As We Speak,” which premieres Jan. 22 in Park City and is expected to announce its distributor soon. Inspired by Erik Nielson and Andrea L. Dennis’ book “Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America,” his doc examines the use of rap lyrics in trials — and, in the vast majority of cases, to coerce poor suspects to make plea deals — when comparable lyrics in country and other genres are rarely brought into court, and loosely fictionalized books others write that allude to suspected crimes can’t be used in court on first amendment grounds.

Harper says studio interest in the film came after rapper Young Thug’s ongoing RICO trial was announced. Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis is prosecuting unrelated cases against both the star and Donald Trump.

Young Thug’s case also brought attention to more widespread inequities in the court system. “This strategy of prosecutors [using rap lyrics] has been ongoing for almost 30 years, and Young Thug just happened to have the [millions] to pay for a private attorney rather than being — and these are very well-intentioned people — stuck with a public defender like hundreds and perhaps thousands of other rappers,” Harper notes. These attorneys are often overwhelmed with cases, and may only see their clients’ case materials when they arrive in court, something that puts all poor defendants forced to use their services at a disadvantage.

There are even more films that address the criminal justice system. The doc “Sugarcane,” which debuts Jan. 20 with sales repped by Submarine, examines the abuse and death of Indigenous children under the care of the Canadian government and Catholic Church at an Indian school … but it also offers some uplifting stories about law enforcement as well.

“For decades, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) played a major role as truant officers tasked with enforcing attendance at these institutions. In practice, this often meant physically dragging native children away from their parents and homes and transporting them to the schools, sometimes in the back of cattle trucks,” said directors Julian Brave NoiseCat and Emily Kassie in a statement to Variety.

“First Nations continue to face violence and discrimination at the hands of police,” they added. “However, the officers we met through the making of ‘Sugarcane’ have worked with the Williams Lake First Nation for years and showed admirable compassion and desire to atone for the injustices perpetrated by the RCMP. They opened up their records to investigators. One officer, who also plays softball for the Williams Lake First Nation’s team, helped an elderly survivor identify the area of the former Mission campus where she witnessed the burial of a little girl while she was a student.”

And another doc feature with some upbeat moments is Angela Patton and Natalie Rae’s “Daughters,” the story of four girls who attend a “Daddy Daughter Dance” with their imprisoned fathers, part of a fatherhood program at a Washington, D.C., jail. The film premieres Jan. 22, with sales repped by CAA and Submarine.

All of these films will help raise awareness about problems with the criminal justice system, and some will hopefully point to solutions. A few of them, including “Power” and “As We Speak,” plan to roll out audience action campaigns to help turn that awareness into real change. In the meantime, many feel like an attorney that “As We Speak” helmer J.M. Harper knows. “He won’t even call it the ‘criminal justice system.’ He calls it the ‘criminal legal system,’ because the idea of justice in that system is something that remains to be seen.”

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