American Jail (2018): “Homosexuality saved my life” An Interview With Director Roger Ross Williams

American Jail

All Rights Reserved to the rightful owners. © 2017-2018 Feargal Agard. Humans of Film Amsterdam.

Film: American Jail (2018); Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐ – 4/5.

Author: Feargal Agard | Runtime: 96 min. | Director: Roger Ross Williams | Year: 2018.

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Compelled by the death of his childhood friend, Academy Award-winning film director Roger Ross Williams discusses in his provocative and personal film the forces that run the sprawling prison system of the United States.

Starting with beautifully animated scenes we get to understand Williams’ childhood history. Born in Easton, Pennsylvania in 1970, Williams grew up in a town and neighborhood that dealt with racial issues, poverty, and crime. Committing mischief and stealing from rich white people were acts that occupied youngsters in his neighborhood where drug abuse and alcoholism were already a common influencer that disadvantaged the neighborhood. Hereafter we follow Williams in his quest to deconstruct and unveil everything that is erroneous with the criminal justice system of the United States. Of which poor (white) people, minorities, people of color, but mostly black people are a victim off. The numbers shown in this documentary are staggering. The United States has in percentages and in numbers the highest incarceration rate in the world which comes to an amount of 2.2 million prisoners. Most noteworthy is that fifty percent of the prisoners are African American. Stuck in a system that you will recognize -after watching American Jail (2018) and understanding the ‘justifying’ role that the 13th Amendment plays- as part of modern-day slavery.

After the screening a discussion initiated lead by moderator Tracy Metz of the John Adams Institute with Roger Ross Williams and Dutch human rights lawyer and former chairman of Amnesty International the Netherlands, Bart Stapert. On top of that, the audience was invited to join in on the discussion with questions of their own. When all of this had finished, I finally had the opportunity to speak with Williams about his career, his documentary film American Jail (2018), and his political views on the current situation in the United States.

Feargal Agard: American Jail was very clear in itself, provocative and very personal. I am aware that the death of your childhood friend Thomas Alvin compelled you to go back to Easton and investigate the prison system that made him commit suicide. Can you explain why this documentary is so relevant right now, this day and age?

Roger Ross Williams: It is always relevant when 2.2 million people are locked behind bars and many of them with little hope of getting out. We are talking about lost lives, their affected families and their communities which are decimated by the criminal justice system. That is everyone’s problem and it is an American problem and not just the problem of the ones behind bars. Because it affects the country and the economy. We’re spending $200 dollars a day to house a prisoner that could be contributing to the American economy.

Another reason why it’s relevant right now is embodied in one word or better said a name that makes it completely relevant for everyone to be engaged in this criminal justice issue and that is Trump. We have Donald Trump in the White House who seems entirely focused on race in America, by dividing people and turning back the clock on criminal justice reform. What many people don’t know is that this whole prison system is basically an extension of slavery. That started from the 13th Amendment and the Jim Crow laws and now it continues as a hidden form of modern-day slavery. For someone like Donald Trump that is a great thing, because Trump would be extremely happy if every poor, minority or black person in America was behind bars.

We live in a time of crisis because before Trump we had President Obama who was actually fighting the issues in this system by reforming the criminal justice system. He made steps in an attempt to reform this system and Trump wants to take us back to the Dark Ages and people need to be aware of that. It is time to go out and vote, not only against people like Trump but also people like Jeff Sessions. Sessions is a relic of the Jim Crow south and a proven racist, but as the United States Attorney General, he is the head of the United States Department of Justice. That is comparable to a plantation overseer, but then running a criminal justice system. It stands for the crisis moment that we live in and people need to wake up and fight against it.

It isn’t known to most, but this is sort of the ‘civil rights movement’ of our time. We should be similarly engaged as we were as people of color during the civil rights movement in the criminal justice systems because they are locking us up and throwing away the key.

Agard: Do you understand where it is coming from? Why people aren’t seeing this issue?

Williams: I mean it’s because we are locking up poor people, minorities and people of color. America just doesn’t care about those people. They see them as expendable. So it’s pretty clear to me. I don’t know if it’s clear to most Americans, but I made this film and I made sure that it’s broadcasted on CNN, a broad platform with 100 million people watching. Hoping that America could maybe try to understand what’s happening and the response has been incredible so far.

I know that you know about it and people within my sphere and community know about it, but most Americans don’t. It’s shocking when I got so many tweets and e-mails and they’re like “I had no idea this was going on in America.” It is because the majority of Americans are numb, to the reality that they’re living in. I mean look at our president who is a reality show star and a fraud and Americans buy into it.

Agard: I also feel that it’s because they are being told that they are all by definition hardened criminals who fully deserve their punishments.

Williams: They are being told that more crime happens in communities of color and that’s not true. Brett Kavanaugh is in his fraternity house getting blackout drunk and raping women. Do you think Brett Kavanaugh goes to prison? No, he gets to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. In reality, privileged [rich] white men never have to pay for their crimes while the system is used to basically put away dissenting voices.

I’d like to imagine another million African Americans and their allies out on the streets demanding and protesting for their rights because 2.2 million people are in prison and fifty percent of them are black people. When the African American population in the United States is only 14 percent. It’s pretty clear what’s going on and we just sit back and we watch how someone like Brett Kavanaugh is appointed to a position in the Supreme Court of the United States.

Agard: I have followed and researched your oeuvre and there’s a question that arose in me. Do you see yourself as a political filmmaker? Is that your mission? Is that where you get your inspiration from?

Williams: I think I get my inspiration from injustices, the unjustly treated people and communities that have been left behind or forgotten about. That is what all my films are about. I want to shine a light on these topics. Yes! Damn, right I’m a political filmmaker. Every film has its own point of view and I’m a part of the stories that I tell and here and there I include my experience as a black gay man living in America and all across the world.

Agard: That brings me to the following question and it’s quite personal to me as well. It really struck me when you said that “homosexuality saved your life.” I believe that I immediately understood that, but could you elaborate on that? Because I feel a lot of people would not understand that.

Williams: When you’re a kid growing up and going to high school in the community I lived in and the world is homophobic. You think it’s the end of the world because people rejected me and hated me for who I am. I had to get out of that already oppressed community. The opportunities for them were few. There is a history of drug abuse and the only way to escape for me was leaving to New York City where there is a whole world out there of people like me and where I could be myself. It was liberating and eye-opening and I don’t think I ever looked back. Many of the people that I grew up with never left their community. I only escaped simply because I knew that I was living a lie there. I was living for them, not for myself.

Not every gay person escapes and that is sad. There was a moment during the production where I felt that I should be focusing on mass incarceration and not my sexuality, but it was Courtney Saxton from CNN who reminded me that I should say what I felt. She said, “you’ve told me that homosexuality saved your life you need to say that! You need to let the audience know because there are kids all across America and all over the world who are or might be in a similar situation.” These kids need to realize that there is hope beyond their situation.

Agard: Towards the end of the film you’re sitting in a circle with a group of young incarcerated men. There’s a moment where you seemed emotionally moved by their stories. Could you express what was going through you during that moment?

Williams: I think that moment was about ‘survivor’s guilt’. These young bright men who had basically grown up in the same situation as me, but they weren’t so lucky. It could be that they didn’t have the urge to run away like me since I wanted to leave the community that wasn’t accepting of my sexuality. But It could have gone the other way for me and I think that’s why I felt this survivor’s guilt. I thought to myself, I’m living in New York with a certain amount of success and privilege of my own and I had lost the connection to where I came from. When they started to tell their stories and they went around in a circle which was hours and hours and their stories were all the same. About single mothers and I had a single mother too. Certain violence, drug abuse, alcoholism, and finding community in a gang as if it was sort of their destiny.

I couldn’t find community in a gang because the gang members would be like, “oh but he is a fag. I’m gonna beat his ass.” So I wasn’t getting near any gang. I wanted to study and read books because that’s my way out. But I could see why they find community in a gang and how that lead them down this path and I think I felt deeply guilty, and I broke down. You see a little bit of it in this film but I cried like a baby during the stories. I was heaving because I had listened to all their stories and I felt the pain of a community that has been broken by a system that’s unjust.

Agard: I first thought the documentary would display you crying and then it didn’t happen so I thought that you kept it together.

Williams: Well, I didn’t keep it together. The broadcasters were doubting if it would fit in the film. I fought for it, but it got cut back in the negotiations.

Agard: What would the difference have been if viewers saw you crying?

Williams: They weren’t able to see how crying for these guys who are ‘hardened criminals’, who killed people would be befitting for the documentary and what that would convey to viewers. It’s hard to understand the system that they are stuck in and it can be even harder to understand or sympathize with these prisoners.

Agard: Lastly could you reveal what about James Baldwin’s books made a turn in your life?

Williams: I was very lonely and I read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. It’s about him escaping Harlem and going to Paris where he falls in love with a student named Giovanni. Baldwin is sort of blossoming with Giovanni and I identified with that. After I graduated from NYU I moved to Paris. I was following James Baldwin’s footsteps only Paris didn’t work out for me. Still, the book changed my life because I realized by reading that book that there was a bigger world out there. A whole world was at my fingertips and I embraced the world and explored it. There were no limits to what I could do. It changed my thinking which enabled me to go to Africa and make films like Music by Prudence (2010), win an Academy Award, hold a position at the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and I won three Emmy’s this week. Everything started with that book and the point that James Baldwin did it and that I can do that too.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

The film will be released in the Netherlands on the 28th of September 2018.

Genre: Documentary | Languages: English | Producer: Submarine | CNN

In regard to all pictures and trailer footage. All Rights Reserved to the rightful owners. CNN Films

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