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Rectify, Rikers and the Power of Cinematic Consciousness-Raising

Great storytelling builds conviction through empathy. It doesn’t preach or resort to rational argument; it simply engages us with depth in the shared human experience. Great storytelling makes us better people in that it expands our horizons to include the excluded other.

The greatest challenge of the marginal is their invisibility. Those with the greatest needs are not seen. It is not without purpose that the stories of Jesus’ compassion always included looking first, feeling second, and then taking action. It begins with seeing: "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion..." (Matthew 9:36).

Some of the biggest scars on our society are those that are consciously kept out of sight and thus out of mind. The perversity of the U.S. criminal justice system is one of these invisible cancers in our body politic. It is also the lasting symbol of systemic institutional racism.

We have more people in prison than Russia, China, and North Korea combined. The United States has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s incarcerated people. The statistics are numbing and outrageous.

My son, Alex, teaches art at the notorious Rikers Island Prison Complex in New York City. American citizens responded with horror to news accounts of U.S. military abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison in January 2004. Some perhaps rationalized that these abuses were in Iraq during a time of war. But how do we rationalize similar abuses at home during peacetime? For there is a similar tale of abuse at Rikers Island located within eyesight of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. We should join and celebrate the Close Rikers Movement. We need to move our feet and open our wallets, but first we need to open our hearts.

Many of us need cinematic consciousness-raising about our criminal justice system. We need to look and feel, before our protests have genuine authenticity.

To this end, I recommend binge watching Ray McKinnon’s Sundance TV series, Rectify (four seasons). Malcolm Jones states in The Daily Beast, “Rectify is the best series I have ever seen on television. Not may be. Not might be. It just is.” I concur. It’s the fictional story of Daniel Holden who is released after serving 19 years on Georgia’s Death Row after DNA evidence calls his conviction into question. It is not a documentary on prison violence or even the corruption of the legal system. Rather it is a powerful insight into the psychological and familial impacts of our prison system.

While it’s a series that ended in 2016, its power to open hearts has no shelf life. The series is beautifully filmed and powerfully acted. It showcases the potential for long-form television programming. The characters are fully developed, the tensions fully realized, and the viewer’s emotions are fully engaged. Filmed in Griffin, Georgia, the characters have the feel of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. While it is not a fast-pace series, its complex, messy, and methodical journey is much closer to the real patterns of life than the typical 22-minute sitcom that wraps up life crises neatly in a bow and laugh track in one episode. This is cinematic consciousness-raising of a stronger sort. It is the first dose in a needed correction to our penal system. For the imagination captures the whole person in ways that statistics and arguments do not. Close Rikers, but start with immersing oneself in Daniel Holden’s story. Then our activism will be appropriately tempered with empathy.

To “rectify” is to right a wrong, to restore the broken. Until we are able to see our spiritual epics as the prolonged messy righting of our own brokenness, we will never be able to enter into the journeys of others, much less the stories of the 10,000 inmates housed at Rikers. It is storytelling that creates connections. Without it our noblest protests will not bear scars. The potential of redemption comes in a cruciform shape. Flannery O’Connor writes, “There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration.” Rectify illustrates the cost and the fragility of hope. Our activism needs to start here.

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