The Prison-Industrial Complex as an entity is finally beginning to seep into the consciousness of Americans. How and why the United States incarcerates it citizens, the role that race plays, and the approaches pitting punishment and containment against rehabilitation, are becoming more mainstream topics.
Opening this month, “Imprisoned,” written and directed by Paul Kampf, examines the life trajectory of a man who believes he has paid his dues to society through his time served, and is now a different person. The narrative takes place in Puerto Rico.
Laurence Fishburne inhabits the title role of Warden Daniel Calvin, and is supported by a strong cast, including the well-known Latinx actors Edward James Olmos and Esai Morales. Newer faces included Juan Pablo Raba, Juana Acosta, and Jon Huertas. John Heard is seen in his last film appearance.
Kampf has combined disparate elements to deliver a contemporary story. The film harkens back to the gritty “Big House” studio prison dramas of the 1920s and 30s, which blended action, social awareness, and the struggles of men to survive in an unfair and corrupt penal system. There is Christian iconography displayed throughout, which brings into focus the themes of guilt, retribution, and redemption. The music and rhythms of Puerto Rico, from the band Orquesta el Macabeo, are seamlessly integral to the account.
The film begins with the date set to demolish the island’s Santiago Prison (Even the name has a subtext.). Fishburne is seen awakened by a nightmare. He is warned by a soon to be introduced character, “What you did inside that place will be with you forever.”
Shifting back to over twenty years prior, we meet the other main protagonist, Dylan Burke (Juan Pablo Raba), who has just been released from jail. He joins a group of ex-cons who make their living as fishermen, their daily work surrounded by the freedom of open waters.
Burke is a talented woodcarver and a carpenter. His wife, Maria, runs a local café. She is active in promoting prisoner’s rights and in fighting against capital punishment.
The story is brought to light via flashbacks — revealing key details until the viewer fully understands the forces at play. As the plot unfolds, the audience learns of the history and connection between Burke and Warden Calvin. Their struggle will ripple out to impact the lives of those immediately around them, as well as the larger community.
Kampf creates interior shots in tonalities of greys and greens, from the peeling walls to the uniforms of the inmates and the guards. The gallows platform, from which prisoners are hanged, has an inscription in the wood above the noose: “Justice Begins and Ends Here.”
In this hierarchy, everyone performs their respective roles. There are cruelties on all sides. Politics shapes attitudes, and when the Governor’s re-election bid is at risk, he is willing to endorse public sentiment and end the executions. Conversely, Warden Calvin insists that his support of the death penalty reflects the “will of the people.”
I was able to interview Kampf by phone and email. Our conversation dug deeper beyond the film, into the backstory of his Equitas Entertainment company — which is committed to implementing gender equal pay and representation for minorities both in front and behind the camera.
Kampf, who was a founding member of the Breadline Theatre Group, has a history of combining social consciousness with creativity. He explained that Equitas was formed “not only to make great films, but with a mission to make a difference.” He noted, “It takes risk to blend social impact and commerce.” Kampf gave the example of how his team had negotiated the female lead’s compensation rate up from what was presented, in order to meet his organization’s commitment standards.
“We hired women to lead essential departments and elevated many people to key apprentice positions,” Kampf told me, “so that they could have a foot in a door that is often closed on them because of their gender or race.”
On the choice to shoot the film in Puerto Rico, beyond the physical location, part of the incentive was “to make a positive impact on
the community.” For Kampf, “How we made the film is as important as what it is.” He talked at length about the theme of “second chances,” which was an impetus to work with a local program in Puerto Rico that “goes into the prison system and
uses theater to help those incarcerated express, create and find a positive outlet.” This led to having “forty formerly incarcerated
men on set in front of the camera, and ten currently incarcerated men who had proven themselves in the program.”
The movie was shot before Hurricane Maria, and was just over thirty days into post-production when the island was devastated. “Because so many of our cast and crew were impacted, we gave money as a company to relief and used the film to raise money through a private screening in Los Angeles,” Kampf said. He emphasized, “Going back to Puerto Rico to premiere the film in connection with the second anniversary of Hurricane Maria was conscious and important.” (He was in Puerto Rico when we spoke.)
“Imprisoned” is a blended language film (20 percent is in Spanish with English subtitles.), that should track well with a variety of target audiences. Kampf describes it as a “revenge thriller wrapped around the heart of a love story.”
We discussed the issue of how Hollywood defines commercial viability. “Selling the movie was not the only goal,” Kampf related. “It was a balance of social currency and trying to build a model that challenged the very Hollywood notion that minorities on screen and equal pay were not valuable to the bottom line,” Kampf underscored.
In keeping with the mission of Equitas, Kampf has partnered with several Latinx organizations, ACLU members, and second chance organizations to promote the film nationwide.
With prisons continuing to be overcrowded and underfinanced, and the federal government planning to resume capital punishment after an almost twenty-year hiatus, “Imprisoned” is poised to add to the conversation on criminal justice reform.
Photos: Equitas Entertainment/Cinema Libre Studio
September 13 in NYC (AMC Empire 25)
September 20 in LA (Laemmle’s Music Hall & Pacific Theatres Lakewood Center 16)
September 27 in Chicago (Regal City North IMAX & RPX)