If he ever went to the big house, Judge Brett Cullum would opt to perform a monologue from Warrior Queen.
Murderers, Fugitives, Thieves…
Shakespeare Behind Bars follows a production of The Tempest put on by an all-male theatre troop who happen to be incarcerated inside Kentucky's Luther Luckett prison. It's a wild vision of theatre as redemption and salvation. There's something powerful about convicts speaking in iambic pentameter, and letting their passions seep in to the words. It's the dregs of society producing the height of culture, a true clash of aesthetics where street meets stage. You begin to forget who these guys are, and begin to just see them as an odd motley acting troop who wear matching jumpers. Wisely, the documentary allows each thespian to tell his story about how he ended up in the correctional facility. Surprisingly, these guys are great at bringing the production to life. The Tempest and its themes about "forgiveness" resonates with them. It takes place on an island which reminds the men of the prison, and it talks about creating order from moral anarchy by the act of mercy and redemption.
The documentary was a big hit at 2005's Sundance Film Festival, and was up for the Grand Jury Prize. Shakespeare Behind Bars is a moving look at subjects few people think about. And yet here the prisoners are doing something extraordinary. No narrator provides insight, all the dialogue is driven by the inmates, the volunteers who work with them, and the prison staff. It is a true documentary which allows the viewer simply to see events, and make up their own mind about what all of this means. Ultimately it creates a sensitive and sympathetic portrait of men who need to do a play to discover and better themselves.
Shout! Factory provides a surprisingly robust package for a small documentary such as this. Front and center are two commentaries which feature the prisoners on two tracks and the film's director on another. There are deleted scenes, and bonus footage of the production. The scenes that hit the floor include more in-depth stories from the prisoners, and clears up some of their stories. There is also a troupe update which lets us know some of what happens after the film. The widescreen transfer looks great, and the digital video provides for sharp images and clear dialogue. This is a handsomely made documentary, and it's transferred well to the disc with an amazing array of extras. Shout! Factory is one company that continually amazes me with the care and attention they provide for every release.
Shakespeare Behind Bars is a revelation about men who are rarely seen as human, much less artists. This brave film allows us to see the triumph of the human spirit when bolstered through culture and education. Yet the play allows the men to be free for a couple of hours, and perhaps that is the most compelling reason for them to participate. Perhaps the last lines of the play reveal why these men relate to The Tempest so well: "As you from crimes would pardon'd be/let your indulgence set me free."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
• 2 Prisoner Commentaries
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