All he wanted was the second chance he deserved.
When unfocused writer Paul Freeman agrees to teach a creative writing course in prison, he does so with mixed motivations. Desperate for money and some new literary ideas, he hopes to find inspiration behind the barbed wire and iron bars. But he discovers something even more intriguing: an ex-Black Panther student named Charles Henderson, who is serving life without parole for his part in a murder over twenty years ago. Henderson is a model prisoner: literate, helpful, and bent on educating his fellow inmates. He has unsuccessfully tried for parole every year since the crime, but the main stumbling block appears to be the sister of the man who died during the raid. Freeman places the writing program on the back burner and makes reopening Henderson's case his number one priority. He learns that the militant and his fellow agitators may have been set up that fateful evening. But the only chance that Henderson now has is in the forgiveness of the victim's family. And with support from Freeman, his own, now grown son and his ability with the written word, Henderson reaches out—in letter form—to express his remorse for what happened that horrible night. Is Henderson destined to spend his life behind bars, or will Freeman and his talent be the Redeemer he is looking for.
Reading the above synopsis of Redeemer tells you all you need to know about this USA Network made for television film. A slight notch above other melodramatic movies about finding hope from within prison, this is truly no Shawshank Redemption or even an episode of Oz. Instead, it's an earnest, by the book story about the healing grace of forgiveness and the written word. In the competent hands of seasoned veteran Graeme Clifford (The Last Don, Gleaming the Cube), Redeemer is solid entertainment that occasionally sells its subject matter short. Acting wise, both Matthew Modine and Obba Babatunde are very good, generally underplaying what could have very easily been overly flashy roles. As Kendall, Henderson's son, Christian Paul shows a great deal of promise and presence on screen. And Michele Green is committed and convincing as the long suffering sister of the victim, trapping all of her rage and fear in the upper two thirds of her face. It's just too bad that there's not more to this story. The script hints at conspiracy and corruption at a government level, but it constantly drags the movie back to the people involved. And while that's a good strategy in theory, in actuality it showcases one of the film's major weaknesses.
The major flaw in Redeemer, one that keeps it locked into formula foundations and never lets it soar into something special or memorable, is the lack of background. This movie is all about the moment, not the motivation, so we get little discussion of the ancillary issues involved. We learn virtually nothing about the Panthers as an organization. The drug house raids and the reasons behind them are only hinted at. The informant within the militant faction's ranks is merely introduced as kind of a supplementary obligatory villain to the story (when confronted by Modine, he kicks his ass). And we never quite learn why Henderson found himself taking the hardest rap for the crime while the actual shooter and his cohorts are long free. All of this information would have fleshed out Redeemer, making it less of a noble white guy saves noble black inmate story. For you see, context would make us care. It would make us choose sides and wonder about the people involved. How did Henderson become such a gifted writer? Why is he helping so many of his fellow convicts? Again, we know very little about the people here. They take up their archetypal positions and merely go through the motions. Occasionally moving but also monotonous, Redeemer could have been a valuable lesson about political convictions go awry. Instead, it's just a story about the inherent power in the ability to lucidly compose one's thoughts on paper.
Artisan's Edict is in full effect here. Since Redeemer is not some gawd-awful bit of bogus bull splatter, we are handed a bare bones, movie and nothing more package. If this film had smelled like a well-used prison weight room, then Artie and the gang would have thrown in music videos, commentary tracks, DVD-ROM content, and a copy of the Black Panther's manifesto for good measure. Instead, all we get here is a very good image and decent sound. Presented in full frame format, the transfer is crisp and clean with no compression or digital defects. As for the sound, we get Dolby Digital Stereo Surround, which offers some immersion, but nothing special. As this is a dialogue heavy film, there is not much ambient noise to create a three dimensional soundscape. Since this movie is "inspired by a true story," it would have been nice to include just a little of the actual events for some compare and contrast. As it stands, we have a polite story about salvation, both physical and spiritual, that fails to offer much in the way of emotional impact. Redeemer could have been another in a long line of powerful films dealing with the lack of justice in the like named system. Instead, it's too nice to take on the structure, too present to explain the bigger picture. Most writing teachers argue that a narrow focus makes for the best storytelling. Redeemer suffers from being too restricted to rise above its standard saga.
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