Monday, August 6, 2012

Life, prison and the new slavery

I’m a big fan of Eddie Murphy’s acting chops. Even in movies that most people hate (Norbit is a great example) he demonstrates remarkable character-acting. This post is not about Murphy specifically, so I’ll refrain from attempting to further explore the nagging question of why he has not been able (or willing) to do what other 80s comedians (Tom Hanks, Michael Keaton to name two off the top of my head) have – be taken seriously doing drama while still being able to dabble in comedy periodically.

This post is about the 1999 movie Life, perhaps Eddie Murphy’s greatest. He’s had many great movies (Coming to America pops to mind on many levels), but Life is yet at another level still.

Life tells the micro story of two Black Roaring Twenties-era city-slicking New Yorkers from Harlem; one, a low-tier street hustler named Ray Gibson (Murphy), the other a straight-laced aspiring banker named Claude Banks (Lawrence). Circumstances send them together on a moonshine run into the Deep South where things go wrong, they are wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

There are many incredible devices in the screenplay of this movie. For example, once they are entrenched down south, the camera never shoots New York again. No one up north is shown wondering what happened – Spanky doesn’t wonder about the rum; the bank never wonders about Claude’s not showing up. New York, and their entire life before incarceration, fades away, because they are “here for life.”

There is also the wonderful presentation of the stark contrast between the North and South – it takes some time for these city-slicking Northern Blacks to appreciate that “this ain’t Harlem” – the rural South is no place for a smart-mouthed Negro, as they will soon and irreversibly discover (not with the brutal finality that befell Emmett Till even as late as 1955, but this is a movie that was billed - quite criminally, in my opinion - as a comedy).

There is also a moving montage of images that impress on the viewer the passage of time. So many things happened in America from the 1920s through the 1970s - and Ray and Claude missed all of it on that rural Southern prison farm, cut off from the world. This may be the Eddie Murphy movie that makes you cry.

And, of course, their aging. 

Make-up notwithstanding, they age into senior citizens and act, move and speak like they were really old men. Wonderful work on both their parts.

And there are other neat devices used to make this movie work.

But the point of this post is in the title, where the macro story is to be found. There’s a poignant scene where our two protagonists are sitting at the meal table, and the conversation lands on one of the men who'd been in the prison since he was a teen. Amazed, they ask what he did to get a life sentence, and they gather he was convicted of murder. Then others chime in to say that his crime wasn't as bad as others who'd done all kinds of crazy things, or "something like that." Each story gets increasingly absurd until it's clear such things likely did not happen at all. 

Finally, they then ask our protagonists, “So, what’d you do to get here?” and Ray and Claude, needing to feign credibility amongst what they've been led to believe are hardened criminals, make up a fanciful story of a murder spree. We know that's not what happened, and it confirms for us what we began to suspect while listening to the litany of crimes against humanity from the rest of the group - they themselves were all likely convicted wrongfully. And thus we had an entire prison populated by Black men, many if not all of whom were there, for life, under false pretense. And, why?

Sergeant Dillard (welcoming the new “incorrigibles” to prison): 

We got fields need clearin', roads need buildin', and ditches need diggin'…You prisoners are now the property of the State of Mississippi.”

Sheriff Pike (in response to being accused of participating in false charges against Ray and Claude): 

What the hell difference does it make? At least the state of Mississippi got forty years of cheap labor out of the deal!

Slave labor in America was supposed to have been doomed by the 1863 signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. It was supposed to have been strengthened in 1864 by the 13th Amendment, which "outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude except as punishment for a crime."

That's a pretty convenient little caveat, indeed.

To suggest that prisons are the means of a new slavery is not novel, and I certainly didn’t make it up, but it did dawn on me internally and prompted an internet search to see what kind of data was available out there on the subject (just to make sure I wasn't crazy). If you enter “prison new slavery” you'll find a veritable all-you-can-eat buffet of research on the topic. You can also refer to Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness  (I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list of books to read). Or, watch the movie Life and pay attention for more than just a few laughs.

Eddie Murphy’s Life may have been too serious to take seriously. We’d much rather laugh at or criticize his Nutty Professor flatulence, or lament that he’s doing too many kiddy family movies and not enough of the edgy characters such as Reggie Hammond or Axel Foley that made his career back in the 80s.

Too bad - this was a gem. See it and tell us what you think.


  1. Hmmm I think I need to see this film before I can post a full opinion on this topic...Still, it really had me thinking....I'll get back to you on this one...interesting indeed..

    1. Hey it doesnt look like M.Wanderer ever got back to you "on this".

    2. Yep, I'm long overdue to circle back with him on this.


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