Bringing HBO Documentary ‘Southern Rites’ to Otisville Prison

On May 19, 2016 a group of Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) staff members accompanied Vee Bravo our VP, Education Programs, to Otisville Prison for a screening of Gillian Laub’s HBO documentary SOUTHERN RITES. The film documents the repercussions that occur when a white resident of Montgomery County, Ga., a community with longstanding race and equality issues, is charged with the murder of a young black man.

Laub came with us to the prison for a post-screening Q&A with the inmates. It was the first time she had screened a film in such a setting, as is the case for most filmmakers participating in our TFI Community Screening Series. The Community Screening Series is a public initiative of TFI that holds free screenings of independent films across various communities and civic spaces to encourage dialogue, introspection, and social action.

Throughout the entire 87-minute screening at Otisville the inmates focused on the TV screen, quietly absorbing every detail of the film. The only noise came from the guard’s radio and the buzzing fans, turned on by the inmates to keep Laub, who was pregnant, comfortable.

After the film, many of the men participated in a discussion led by three inmate facilitators: Charles "Chas" Ransom, Alejo Rodriguez, and Moses El-Sun White. All three are serving life sentences. During the discussion, they prompted their fellow inmates to put themselves in the shoes of the film’s characters and asked what they would do in those circumstances. They also made diagrams exploring key themes of the film to guide the discussion.

Laub shared a photo of one such diagram with her more than 28,000 Instagram followers, and reflected on how deeply the inmates dove into the subject matter of her film. She wrote:

After screening SOUTHERN RITES for the inmates of Otisville prison there were amazing and insightful group discussions where they wrote down major themes of the film and their responses. The men talked about morality, justice, hope, disappointment, redemption, rehabilitation, choices, and history… “Racism is part of the American family,” one man said. 

The film casts a harsh light on institutionalized racism. The white man at the center of the story serves just over a year of jail time for the murder he is charged with. In sharp contrast, most of the 50 inmates who watched the film at Otisville are people of color serving life sentences after being convicted of murder. The difference in sentences is painfully stark, yet it didn’t take the inmates by surprise. During the post-show discussion one inmate said the film shows how “the system is the villain.” Another said, “we know the system is messed up already; the thing to figure out is what are we going to do about it?”

Laub, however, went on to express frustration with the inmates’ situation in her Instagram post.

Most of these men are called ‘lifers’ (they’ve been incarcerated for decades and serving life sentences) and have been denied parole numerous times. What blew my mind is that these same men who talked about rehabilitation and morality had so much wisdom to share and could be assets to society and yet, they most likely will never be able to, outside of the prison walls.

Indeed, having the ability to leave Otisville prison after the screening felt like a privilege. As the TFI staff members were heading out, one inmate shouted out to us ‘get home safe,’ and it required effort to not say the same to him. For most of the inmates, the prison walls have been their home for decades, and will be for decades to come.

Our VP, Artist Programs, Amy Hobby, screened her Oscar-nominated film WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE at Otisville last month as part of our TFI Community Screening Series. For her, watching the film with the inmates helped her find new meaning in something she had seen many times.

“During the opening Nina Simone is interviewed and says, ‘I’ll tell you what Freedom is to me…’” Hobby said. “Well, the context of her dialogue on freedom really hit me hard this time around.”