Auditorium 5: Presenting Abuse, Racism, Torture, Savagery: Hollywood Pictures the Dark Side of American Prisons

By Gutterman, Mel | The Humanist, September-October 2005 | Go to article overview

Auditorium 5: Presenting Abuse, Racism, Torture, Savagery: Hollywood Pictures the Dark Side of American Prisons


Gutterman, Mel, The Humanist


ADULT $8.75

12pm Sat. 10/01/05

NC-17

Abuse, racism, torture, and savagery. The pictures show it all. The photographs taken at Abu Ghraib Prison are difficult to view. U.S. soldiers compelling nude Iraqi prisoners into sexually degrading poses. Clusters of sexually explicit photos depicting naked Iraqis crowded together, piled up, as if to form an Egyptian pyramid. Shots of inmates apparently forced to perform oral sex and homosexual acts. Male prisoners lined up naked, genitalia exposed, some compelled to masturbate as a grinning female soldier gives the thumbs up. For the most part the prisoners' faces are hidden from us, their human characteristics masked by hoods. Only one photo puts a human likeness on the cruelty inflicted: the blood-soaked, battered body of a dead Iraqi encased in cellophane wrapping and packed in ice. The leering soldiers have taken the pictures from angles that tend to magnify the torment, the sexual degradation, and the humiliation they wanted to mete out.

Whereas these shocking photographs portray real life prisoner abuse in Iraq, over the years Hollywood has revealed the "reel" life experience on the big screen. We have seen far worse cinematic images than the Iraqi photos: the sickening sight of the warden holding a sharp gleaming straight razor in Murder in the First, slicing through the ankle of a young convict dangling from the ceiling, driven mad from having spent three unrelenting years in a dark, spider- and rat-infested cell buried deep inside Alcatraz. We have viewed with horror the brutality of the chain gang system, the barbaric floggings and the harsh living conditions in the startling true story of Robert E. Burns' merciless treatment at the hands of the Georgia criminal justice system in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. And we could hardly even watch the humiliating sexual exploitation by the prison guards (sworn to protect them) of four young delinquents that takes place at the Wilkerson Home for Boys in Sleepers. Throughout cinema's history Americans have watched these prison portraits from the comfort of local movie theaters and their own homes. Yes, the shocking photographs from Abu Ghraib portray real life prisoner abuse in Iraq. But Hollywood's pictures, though fictionalized, accurately reflect the "real" conditions faced by American inmates in U.S. prisons

The Reel Development of the Penitentiary--The Big House Movies

American public interest in prison movies has remained unabated from the time when Robert Montgomery in The Big House portrayed a fearful playboy sentenced to ten years in prison for a death caused by his drunk driving. In the congested penitentiary we gradually discover the difficulties of survival there. The picture was an incredible success, and the title of the movie entered the American vocabulary as the gangsters of the 1930s were sent up the river to the "Big House."

Ever since that film a large number of major movie stars have wanted to play prisoner parts, ideally the romantic convict cast as the consummate outsider challenging the depraved prison system. The tradition started by Montgomery was carried on in 1932 by its most renowned actor of the period, Paul Muni, in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Spencer Tracy in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing. It was continued twice by legendary star Burt Lancaster, first in Brute Force, the 1947 brutal expose of mistreatment of prisoners, and then in Birdman of Alcatraz, his 1962 Oscar-nominated performance as the prisoner Robert Stroud, transformed from violent offender into the pensive expert on canary life. And acclaimed actor Paul Newman portrayed Luke, a handsome, lovable misfit sent to a despotic prison work camp for two years for his destruction of public parking meters. This was the 1967 classic Cool Hand Luke.

In 1979 award-winning actor-director Clint Eastwood depicted convict Frank Morris in the true account of Morris' Escape from Alcatraz.

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Auditorium 5: Presenting Abuse, Racism, Torture, Savagery: Hollywood Pictures the Dark Side of American Prisons
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