For most high school students, studying Shakespeare's flowery syntax and convoluted plotlines is akin to water torture. But for some of the inmates at Luther Luckett Correctional Complex, a medium-security prison in Kentucky, it is a form of salvation. Offering a view of prison life that argues against Oz's hellish landscape, Shakespeare Behind Bars challenges our assumptions about the men who commit the most heinous crimes.
For seven years, inmates at Luckett have been analyzing, rehearsing and performing plays by the Bard. Hank Rogerson's riveting and unbiased documentary follows the yearlong journey of 18 inmate-actors as they prepare for a production of The Tempest.
Set on an isolated island, the play's themes of captivity, forgiveness and redemption have particular resonance with these incarcerated men. As they uncover patterns and parallels to their own lives, the cathartic journey of drama comes to mean more to the cast than the audience. Beyond the momentary escape from prison life, theater becomes an act of confession. Red, an inmate serving 25 years to life, speculates that prisoners make good actors because they spend their lives lying only to then observe that it may be harder than it seems because acting requires the discovery of truth.
What makes Rogerson's intimate character study both challenging and heart-wrenching is the way he structures his documentary. After making us care for these articulate and insightful men, he blindsides us with the shocking details of their crimes. It's an inspired approach, acknowledging the horrid and inexcusable choices they've made, while never letting us forget that they are, indeed, human beings.
Rogerson shrewdly presents moments of dignity and humanity along with examples of personal failure and self-destruction. For every epiphany a cast member achieves, another is thrown into solitary confinement for reckless behavior. We know why these men are where they are but we're forced to confront the idea that no one is beyond salvation. As Leonard, one of the film's most troubling inmates, exclaims, "I do not want to be remembered for the very worst things I did in my life."
Shakespeare Behind Bars refuses to define these men by their crimes, but it doesn't soft-pedal them. Instead it dares to suggest that there's always hope.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 9, and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 10. Call 313-833-3237.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.