“I LEARNED PRISON IS A
BAD PLACE TO BE”:
25th Hour and Reimagining Incarceration
Midway through Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002), the story of a man’s final day before beginning a lengthy prison sentence for drug trafficking, main character Monty Brogan (Edward Norton) offers an extended monologue to a bathroom mirror. It is a profanity-laced litany of abuse heaped on every racial, ethnic, and identity group in New York before Brogan concludes that his real anger is directed at himself: “You had it all and you threw it away.” The film tracks the dialogue with extradiagetic images of the “Bensonhurst Italians,” “Korean grocers,” and “uptown brothers” Brogan derides. One line in the rant directed at African Americans—“Slavery ended 137 years ago. Move the fuck on!”—echoes Norton’s role as a white supremacist in Tony Kaye’s American History X (1998), where he asks rhetorically, “Slavery ended like a hundred and thirty years ago, how long does it take to get your act together?” In that film, Norton’s character makes an effort at atonement the day after being released from prison for a racially motivated murder. Thus the two films bookend an imagined prison sentence, and 25th Hour responds to Norton’s previous film in particular and to prison films in general by staging a complex representation of criminality nuanced in terms of race and history.
As sociologist Sean O’Sullivan recognizes, American History X itself seems to respond to an earlier prison film—The Shawshank Redemption (1994), an escapist male melodrama by Frank Darabont. The 1998 film’s