14 February 2003
A warm hole
opens with a swimmer slicing through the water. An unlikely start
for a movie about prison, the image is also acutely appropriate, as
the film tracks one man's descent into the disturbing waters of the
U.S. penal system. Avery (Richard T. Jones) moves quietly and
powerfully through the peaceful, deeply blue pool, as if in a dream.
From here, the
camera cuts to a bedroom, panning happy couple photos and trophies
on its way to framing Avery, lying in bed with his girl, Krista
(Melissa DeSousa). Together, they look forward to a future that will
take them -- and their young son Jordan -- far beyond their
neighborhood. That afternoon, a scout will be at Avery's swim meet;
having taken some time off to support his family, he now hopes to go
to college on a scholarship.
Like that first
shot in Lockdown, this initial situation is unusual, and
promising. It appears that the film, directed by John Luessenhop and
written by Preston A. Whitmore II (who made the thoughtful Vietnam
War drama, The Walking Dead), will offer characters and
motivations you haven't seen before.
And then: the
clichés. A series of crosscuts to simultaneous scenes bodes ill.
Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus) first appears putting it to his
blond-wigged girl, who makes all sorts of "bad girl" noise. When one
of his street sellers comes calling, Cash drops everything, grabs up
his pit bull, and heads off to take care of bidness. "Why you always
so amped, man?" asks the dealer. "Time is motherf*ckin' money,"
comes the utterly predictable answer. Mad that his minion doesn't
have all the money he owes, Cash kicks him down the steps and
dismisses him, thus: "Punk bitch!"
demonstrated his hyped-up meanness, Cash drives off in his white
convertible Mustang to pick up Dre (De'Aundre Bonds), a quiet,
vaguely anxious kid who works a regular job. Cash asks Dre for the
millionth time to come in with him, and Dre explains, again, that
his mom would kill him.
As these two
drive to see their boy Avery swim, it's clear that they'll bring
trouble. The twist is that they are not directly responsible, but
only act the part. While the film's primary threesome are down at
the meet, a couple of thugs round the way, Broadway (Sticky Fingaz)
and his soon-to-be-dead buddy, roll up on a fast-food drive-in,
canted smoky close-ups indicating their menacing, drug-induced
delirium. (Danger! Danger!) When the girl at the window won't give
them all her (obviously meager) money, they shoot her in the back,
in excruciating slow motion, then drive off to dump their weapon in
a car that looks like theirs -- Cash's Mustang
From here, the
plot goes where you know it will. Avery and Krista go to the meet,
he wins his race and makes good time, and the scout, Charles (Bill
Nunn), tells him that he's on his way -- three schools will be
interested. As soon as Avery and Krista embrace in celebration, his
boys appear in the white Mustang. Cops pull them over, Cash behaves
badly, and, a brief courtroom montage later, the three friends since
childhood are on the bus to a New Mexico prison.
each is assigned to a different sort of cellmate. Cash hooks up with
Clean-Up (Master P, also executive producer on the film), the
joint's major drugs and goods mover. And Dre ends up with Graffiti
(David Shark Fralick), the resident Aryan a**hole who makes the poor
kid his bitch. And Avery gets a mentor, Malachi (Clifton Powell),
who schools him by reading from Invisible Man: "Mine is a
warm hole, and I say this to you because it is incorrect to assume
that because I am invisible and live in a hole, I am dead."
comes to terms with his own hole, and even finds some ways to make
rudimentary sense of it in the raging insanity of lockdown. He takes
a stand in defense of Dre, eventually extending himself beyond a
standard, if understandable, self-interest. And he learns some
important lessons about self-sacrifice.
The film also
gives Avery help that his friends do not have: though he suffers
brutal abuse from guards and fellow prisoners (Clean-Up sets the
tone when he roughs him up on the basketball court), he is also
fortunate to have folks working his case on the outside. Krista
collaborates with Charles, whose daughter happens to be an attorney
with spare time to spend on her dad's interests. This lucky
combination happens on a series of narrative contrivances; for
instance, they find a ready-to-be-turned Broadway, in prison for
life for another murder, as well as a judge who is willing to read
new documents, no questions asked.
Still -- and
while these character types and plot points are overly familiar to
anyone who's seen a prison movie or an episode of Oz --
Lockdown takes its political and ethical subjects seriously. Its
examination of gang affiliations and brutal hierarchies in prison
includes attention to the contraband economy that sustains violence
and criminal activities. Rehabilitation, in other words, hardly
seems the penal system's goal.
Charles observes, "It's not supposed to be easy. It's prison." At
the same time, the egregious abuses that occur in prison are real,
part of a systemic racism and degradation, as much as they are
instances of individual deviance. Melodramatic and sincere,
Lockdown makes this case sensationally, but it does make it, in
ways that distinguish it from sensational prison flicks like
Seagal's trippy Half Past Dead (2002) or Stallone's
histrionic Lock Up (1989). Lockdown, in ways less
stylized than Walter Hill's Undisputed, underlines that the
institution is premised on abuse, cruelty, and a presumption that
all prisoners, guilty or not, "deserve" what they get, for being in
wrong places at wrong times.
And, no small
thing, the film also boasts many fine performances, in particular by
Jones (best known recently for his co-starring role on Judging
Amy), Powell (Dead Presidents), and young Bonds (Junior
in Get on the Bus, currently incarcerated, in real life, for
manslaughter, a point that the PR machinery is emphasizing,
including an interview with him, from prison, on the official
And Master P,
last seen on the big screen for a minute in Undisputed,
acquits himself admirably. Recently, he's been concentrating on his
son Lil' Romeo's career, stating in interviews that he wants to move
away from the street-tough, bling bling focus that characterized his
own work as an MC, and toward "community" and "family" concerns.
He's apparently putting his money where his mouth is. Though
Lockdown has been waiting for theatrical release for some two
years, it demonstrates that his longstanding interest in film
production (I Got the Hookup, Foolish) is evolving
into an increasingly straight-up business.
Richard T. Jones
Preston A. Whitmore
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult