Hollywood studios invest vast sums of money in the films they produce, and the stories they tell tend to reflect public opinion rather than steer it. So it is heartening to see several new films tackle evolving views on how susceptible the criminal justice system is to human fallibility, including the newly released Imprisoned, directed by Paul Kampf and starring Lawrence Fishburne as a warden haunted by his past.
Disheveled and stumbling around rooms of a decrepit, unused prison as it is prepared for demolition in the opening scenes, he flashes back to a warning he received when he was younger and oversaw the penitentiary.
“What you did inside that place,” a woman tells him, “will be with you forever, forever.”
As the film unfolds, we learn the warden abused his power in order to exact revenge on a formerly incarcerated man (Juan Pablo Raba) in order to frame him for murder and execute him in retribution for a horrific crime. The man had served time for the crime, was released, turned his life around, and fallen in love with a woman (Juana Acosta) who participates in protests calling for an end to the death penalty broadly at first, and then directly on his behalf. In an early scene before either realizes who the other person is, she makes it clear to the warden she believes in “second chances” and tells him this “should be on your mind every day.”
Filmed in Puerto Rico before Hurricane Maria devastated the island, Imprisoned, is not based on a true story because capital punishment was abolished there in 1929, but it taps the public’s growing discomfort with how 29 states and the federal government still carry out the death penalty. It also suggests a belief among audiences that people who commit violent crimes can redeem themselves, not just nonviolent offenders that lawmakers and criminal justice reform advocates often focus on.
Imprisoned was produced by Equitas Entertainment Partners, which aims to release films that can make a social impact, and hits theaters this week ahead of two other death penalty dramas. In Chinonye Chukwu’s film Clemency, Alfre Woodard plays a warden who battles emotional trauma as she oversees executions, while a condemned man (Aldis Hodge) seeks a reprieve based on his innocence and wrongful conviction. Later this year, Warner Bros. brings the best-selling memoir by civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson to the screen, with Michael B. Jordan of Black Panther portraying Stevenson and Jamie Foxx as Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian, his poor black client on death row who was convicted of murdering a young white woman based on testimony later revealed to have been fabricated.
Unlike these films, Imprisoned features a character who committed a crime and worked to turn his life around after being released from prison, only to find that not everyone on the outside was ready to forgive him. The self-destructive behavior of Fishburne’s warden character seems to stem not from being a victim, but from his inability to move beyond the punishment paradigm. While the movie’s plot sometimes seems predictable, it offers an important opportunity to wrestle with the emotional wreckage wrought by mass incarceration in the United States, and why the fight to end it must continue.
Imprisoned debuts this Friday at AMC 25 in Manhattan. The Indy is giving away five pairs of tickets to the Friday and Saturday screenings on a first-come, first-serve basis. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org using the subject line “Imprisoned” to obtain a free pair.