Wednesday, November 11, 2020

DOC NYC Spotlight: Since I Been Down

I’m excited to be covering DOC NYC, America’s largest documentary festival, which presents its eleventh year, this time in a mostly online format, from November 11th-19th. 

Since I Been Down
Directed by Gilda Sheppard
Ticket Information

There has been an increased spotlight lately on systemic racism within the police force in the United States and how it has led to the deaths of so many innocent people of color stopped for a minor infraction or none at all. National conversations about the way in which the system is broken should also focus on incarceration and the disproportionate racial identities of those behind bars, set up for failure because of certain factors and held back even further because of the presumption that there can be no growth or self-improvement that could make even a guilty person capable of contributing positively to society.

This documentary focuses on Tacoma, Washington, marketed to prospective residents as a peaceful suburb but also home to a disturbing amount of gang violence in the late 1990s. Kimonti Carter was arrested for a drive-by shooting and, as a result of the three-strikes law, sentenced to 777 years behind bars. Decades later, he and many others have come to realize the impact of what they did and the lives they took, and have taken it upon themselves to foster a vibrant education program. Knowing that they won’t ever be released due to the fact that parole does not exist in Washington, they seek to make meaningful connections and foster understanding for a new generation they hope will have a better chance at a free life than they did.

This film makes sure to get to know all of its subjects, introducing them when they were first arrested and checking in with them in the present, probing difficult questions and unpacking what they hold on to most, looking to both their pasts and their futures. A focus on the Black Prisoners’ Caucus, founded at a Washington prison in 1972, helps to make clear that this is something that reflects the world outside the prison walls, stemming from the civil rights movement and taking note of the current climate that continues to profile people and make them likelier to end up in prison due to the color of their skin.

This film presents considerable evidence to suggest that the prison system in America is in need of a complete overhaul, beginning with the fact that the state of Washington is overwhelmingly white and those within its prisons are definitely not. The notion of mandatory minimums and the lack of parole are highly disturbing, and the subjects profiled know what they face with little to no hope of being granted clemency. But they do express a positivity and a genuine desire for learning that is affirming, and their eagerness to show and broadcast their success is a sign that one part of this system – one created by inmates who will spend their entire lives in prison – is actually working better than everything else.


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