*This story originally appeared on the B*tch Flicks site in 2016. The site is no longer active, but I have a soft spot for this piece and decided to re-share it here, with a few updates. Many of our friends working for criminal justice reform are using this film as an educational tool. If you would like a free screener, email jennifer (at) thinktenmediagroup.com.
As a woman and a filmmaker, I asked myself many times why my short film, THE wHOLE, focused on a man in an almost exclusively male milieu. In fact, no women appear on screen until the very end of the film, and then only for a few minutes.
Given the show’s subjects — torture, racism, mass incarceration — to begin the series with a woman in solitary confinement would have been equally powerful and equally realistic.
A part of me longed to tell a woman’s story. Perhaps a woman who was sent to an isolation unit because she reported rape by a correctional officer (as is quite common), or perhaps a transgender woman who was sent to isolation “for her own protection,” only to find that isolation offers no protection, but only psychological, emotional, mental, even physical trauma.
We could have done that. We could have made many other choices, but we didn’t. We made the film about Marcus, an African-American male.
We did that for a reason. As recent events remind us, Black men (and boys) are often viewed through a negative lens, seen as threats, guilty without cause by the media, by society, by law enforcement and others. The list of negative stereotypes and those who hold them goes on and on as does the movement that insists on the humanity of Black lives.
In the film, we offer no immediate explanation for why Marcus was sent to solitary confinement, nor do we hint at why he was imprisoned in the first place. We don’t give the viewer that information because those details don’t matter. He could, in fact, be innocent (as many in solitary confinement are.)
In the film, Marcus is defiant. He rages at the inhumane treatment he receives. This is an individual that many might think deserves this punishment, and that is the point, to push viewers to question those sentiments. We want to make viewers uncomfortable.
Though the story centers on a man, for me, telling this story is a feminist act. A friend was recently talking about feminism. She explained, “The crux of feminism is about equality. Feminism cannot ever be separated from the multiple layers of our identity — race, class, culture. Feminism is about exploring our underlying humanity and the forces which try to control or subvert us.” Drawing on this understanding she insisted, after watching THE wHOLE, that “this story is a feminist story.”
Once she said that, I realized that it is. THE wHOLE explores humanity, exposes the prison industrial complex which controls and subverts the humanity of everyone it houses and those it employs; it invites viewers to grow in empathy for a person that some viewers may initially struggle to connect to.
As I developed this project, I did a lot of research — speaking, meeting, and working alongside individuals who have lived the experiences we’re highlighting. Cast and crew on the project spent a combined 7 years in solitary confinement, 40 years behind bars.
I read and listened to many thought leaders pushing for prison reform and/or abolition, including Angela Davis, a feminist and prison abolitionist icon. Davis references Beth Richie who discusses the ways that current incarceration practices reinforce “the intimate violence of the family, of the relationship… [t]he individual violence of battery and sexual assault.” The current system fails to offer restorative justice, fails to benefit society. It offers no solutions worthy of a feminist paradigm.
Solitary confinement is perhaps the most violent, most dehumanizing aspect of the prison industrial complex. When a person is placed in a small box for 23 hours a day with no human contact, it strips identity from them. It calls their existence into question. It is domination and subjugation at its most intense level. It is everything that feminists struggle against.
Bringing this hidden reality (facing approximately 80,000 men, women, and children in the U.S.) to light in a very authentic and real way is an act of feminism, an act of defiance, and an act of hope. Feminism is uplifting not only to women. Insisting on the humanity of all is a feminist act.
Angela Davis states:
“Prisons are constituted as Normal. It takes a lot of work to persuade people to think beyond the bars, and to be able to imagine a world without prisons and to struggle for the abolition of imprisonment as the dominant mode of punishment.”
This project is not about the hole (a colloquial term for solitary confinement), but about the whole of our society — our acceptance of a violent, oppressive system that echoes the worst of our history (colonialism, slavery, patriarchy).
THE wHOLE is about the humanity of us all and that, my friends, is feminism.