· By Skyler Rich
Content Warning: Some of the below documentaries contain graphic images, violence, drug use, and other potentially triggering content.
Combining archival footage with testimony from activists and scholars, director Ava DuVernay's examination of the U.S. prison system looks at how the country's history of racial inequality drives the high rate of incarceration in America.
MANUFACTURING GUILT - A Short Film About Mumia Abu-Jamal's Case
The short takes on the colossus of Abu-Jamal's contentious case, distilling a mountain of evidence and years of oft-repeated falsehoods to the most fundamental elements of police and prosecutorial misconduct that illustrate a clear and conscious effort to frame Mumia Abu-Jamal for the murder of patrolman Daniel Faulkner.
Re-Visions of Abolition
This film forwards an abolitionist analysis of the prison industrial complex by weaving together voices of Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and formerly incarcerated women. Moving beyond critique, this film highlights Susan Burton, a formerly incarcerated activist, who founded the re-entry project “A New Way of Life" as an alternative to incarceration. Designed as a teaching tool, Re-Visions presents alternatives to carceral systems, featuring Dylan Rodriguez, Melissa Burch, and Paula X Rojas.
The Trials of Darryl Hunt
This insightful and emotional documentary is the result of the persistence of two young independent filmmakers who followed the story of a terrible miscarriage of justice in North Carolina for 10 years. The journalists painstakingly re-examine the 1984 rape and murder of a white woman in Winston-Salem and the subsequent conviction of an African-American 19-year-old named Darryl Hunt. During two decades of imprisonment, his supporters and his attorney maintained their belief in Hunt’s innocence, bringing compelling new evidence to trial that repeatedly failed to overturn his conviction. This story of a single murder case is emblematic of wider problems in the criminal justice system, especially in its focus on the faulty testimony of an eyewitness, the impact of racism and the use of DNA evidence.
The Feminist in Cellblock Y
Richard Edmond Vargas, also known as "Richie Reseda" is a convicted felon who has been serving time in an all-male prison in Soledad, California, for armed robbery since he was a teen.
"The Feminist on Cellblock Y," a documentary produced by filmmaker Contessa Gayles, follows the now 25-year-old Reseda and his fellow prison mates as they participate in an inmate rehabilitation program centered around feminist literature.
It's said in the documentary, "a lot of them come out even worse than they were before," referring to the inmates.
In order to counter that particular manifestation, these men spend their days learning about the patriarchy, discovering the power of vulnerability, and personally combating toxic masculinity. Additionally, the program encourages the men to confront all of the areas where these toxic ideals of masculinity have prevailed in their lives.
"We cannot challenge our harmful behavior without challenging patriarchy," Reseda says in the film.
Crime + Punishment
The practice of policing based on quotas — requiring officers to arrest a minimum number of people within a particular time frame — was outlawed in New York City in 2010. Such requirements, opponents argued, turned police officers away from serving the community and finding ways to dispel violence before it happens. Instead, officers would end up making arrests just to hit their numbers. And those arrests often happened disproportionately in low-income minority communities. But outlawing quotas didn’t make them go away. Using interviews, secretly recorded conversations, and other footage shot from 2014 to 2017, Stephen Maing’s documentary Crime + Punishment explores the NYPD’s ongoing but concealed use of quotas and their effects on the citizens of New York — and officers in the police department, too. The resulting work is important for everyone who cares about America’s systems of policing — especially because the NYPD’s system is a template for police forces across the country.
The Innocence Files
The Innocence Project, founded in 1992 by law professors Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, is devoted to overturning wrongful convictions by using DNA evidence to free innocent prisoners while also advocating for reform in the criminal justice system. Netflix’s The Innocence Files tells the stories of some of the people they’ve helped free. Across nine documentary episodes — some of which are as long as a feature film — The Innocence Files draws on the same intriguing cases that often become the subjects of true-crime series while illustrating the breakdown of supposedly just systems and the unreliability of allegedly unimpeachable evidence. It’s among the strongest documentary series about criminal justice I’ve ever seen.
The Farm: Angola, USA
Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack co-directed this documentary, which explores life behind the bars of Louisiana's notorious maximum-security prison, Angola. Stationed on an old slave plantation, Angola is populated overwhelmingly by black inmates, and staffed by a white administration. The stories of various inmates convey the injustice and futility but also the hope that is part of prison life. A prisoner puts forth exonerating evidence to the parole board, and another speaks prior to execution.
Free Angela & All Political Prisoners
Forty years after the high-stakes trial that catapulted 26-year-old scholar and Marxist feminist Angela Davis into the spotlight as a revolutionary icon, Shola Lynch’s 2012 documentary, “Free Angela and All Political Prisoners” relives those transformative years of Davis’ life.
Even as she was branded a terrorist, Davis spurred a worldwide political movement for her freedom. The portrait of that story reignites discussion on the radical movement she joined and eventually led, and it still holds the power to inspire a new generation to similar acts of collective progressivism, all in the name of political and social reforms.
Eyes Of The Rainbow a documentary film with Assata Shakur
"Eyes of the Rainbow" deals with the life of Assata Shakur, the Black Panther and Black Liberation Army leader who escaped from prison and was given political asylum in Cuba, where she has lived for close to 33 years. In it we visit with Assata in Havana and she tells us about her history and her life in Cuba. This film is also about Assata's AfroCuban context, including the Yoruba Orisha Oya, goddess of the ancestors, of war, of the cemetery and of the rainbow.
SHADOWS OF DOUBT
This 1999 documentary examines the case of Vincent Simmons, who was sentenced to 100 years in Angola Prison for the attempted aggravated rape of Karen and Sharon Sanders, two twin white girls in 1977, without any evidence except the conflicting testimony of the two girls.
Jalil Muntaqim- VOICE OF LIBERATION
Jalil Abdul Muntaqim (formerly Anthony Bottom) was 19 years old when he was arrested at the same time as Nuh Washington. He is a former member of the Black Panther Party and is one of the longest held political prisoners in the world. This documentary is a unique opportunity to visit and hear Jalil's story.
George Jackson / San Quentin
Includes rare footage of George Jackson, Georgia Jackson, Angela Davis, Attica and San Quentin prisons.
The co-directors of Whose Streets? are Damon Davis and Sabaah Folayan, who were on the inside of the protests following the 2014 killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s a raw, potent film pieced together from footage and interviews, and it’s unabashed about its perspective and connection to the activists. The film opened in theaters in 2017 just as a white supremacist march began to unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it’s no less relevant today. It’s an essential piece of historical documentation that cries out to be seen — and heeded.
This 2014 documentary takes an intimate look at the cycle of incarceration in America, and one state’s effort to reverse the trend.
The House I Live In
The death of his housekeeper's son inspires filmmaker Eugene Jarecki to add up the true cost of America's losing war on drugs.
In this intimate yet epic love story filmed over two decades, indomitable matriarch Fox Rich strives to raise her six sons and keep her family together as she fights for her husband’s release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, commonly known as Angola.