Will Roberts, University of Richmond Class of 2021, Fall 2020
Table of Contents:
16 Bars opens with a shot of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. The drone pans slowly up and over Lee, looking west down Monument Avenue and capturing in its frame Richmond’s Fan district. We hear Teddy Kane’s voice, with a drone-like synthesizer and the sound of police sirens and chirping birds in the background: “White justice in a Black robe… and I pray the Lord have mercy on my Black soul. And I’m so tired of getting backdoored, and I’d be rich if I had a dollar for every door that got closed.” We see Teddy walking along a sidewalk. He points to an apartment complex in the distance: “There’s a maze over there, man, of just death, hell and destruction.”
The slow pan over Lee, the film’s soundscape, Teddy’s lyrics, the dilapidated housing infrastructure – these are all editorial decisions meant to evoke a sense of foreboding. One might suspect that the scene’s atmosphere is intended to prepare us for an interrogation of the history that made possible the “maze of death, hell and destruction” that Teddy points to. But the foreboding evoked by this scene is neither explored nor resolved.
Soon after the opening scene, Speech Thomas says his mission is to ask the featured artists why they are actuallythere. Listing their criminal charges will not do; Speech wants to know their stories. The music the artists write “serves as rare testimony to the raw and messy truth behind the criminal justice system’s revolving door,” according to Speech’s website. What is surprising is the film’s neglect to pursue the testimonies of the artists’ lyrics, which are layered with analysis of systemic racism and communal trauma. Instead, the film conforms to the jail’s rehab gaze, its narrative of why they are actually there fixated on individual traumas and choices.
Meanwhile, the film presents mass incarceration in a dystopic mood; we are shown monuments to confederate generals, dilapidated housing complexes, police lights flashing all around Teddy as he raps about a system designed to keep him imprisoned. But the film doesn’t contextualize the artists’ lives within the institutional reality of mass incarceration. What is this “prison-industrial complex” Teddy raps about? Why is a monument of the most famous defender of slavery still standing in the middle of Richmond? Why has Teddy’s mom had to move “a hundred times”? 16 Bars avoids addressing these questions by returning again and again to individuals’ “terrible decisions” and, as one resident, Anthony, puts it, “character defects.”
The featured men are invited to talk about their lives, revealing histories of child abuse, violence, abandonment and addiction. Their mugshots flash on the screen at the end of their stories. The stories they tell are dominated by images of their repeated incarceration. The film seems to accept the inevitability that these traumatic stories will end in a jail until the individual chooses a different path.
About thirty minutes into the film, one of the featured artists, Anthony Jackson, is put on 24-hour lockdown in his cell because he has received three “sanctions” in 24 hours. We are told this is because he had talked back to jail officials. “You got a lot to lose right now,” Scarborough says to Anthony. “You’re going back to population if anything else happens. And you understand when you go back to population that cuts everything: the program, education, music, the recording studio.” The other five floors of the Justice Center, known as “population,” are referenced briefly in conversations between Scarborough and Anthony. Scarborough tells Anthony in their next conversation, about 20 minutes later in the film: “If you’re going to stay in the program right now, you’re going to get it together. ‘Cause if you go downstairs to population, you’re gonna be eaten up. You are going to come out worse, that’s no question.” The next scene shows us Anthony, standing against a white wall wearing a gray and black striped jumpsuit, chains wrapped around his wrists and waist, being transferred down to population.
Anthony’s gray and white striped “inmate” jumpsuit contrasts with the navy-blue jumpsuits worn by “residents” on the sixth floor and signifies the shame and stigmatization the state intends to inflict. I note this scene to introduce what critical criminologist Leonidas Cheliotis calls “decorative justice:” the ways in which the state and its agents signal their embrace of calls for criminal justice reform while simultaneously protecting the structures that maintain mass incarceration at large. In the effort to manage public feelings about carceral institutions and the people incarcerated in them, decorative justice presents images of benevolence, fairness and transparency, diverting scrutiny and inviting praise.[i]
According to Scarborough, 16 Bars was made possible because Sheriff Woody “was willing to open his doors (and the bars) to allow such filming to occur. This transparency behind bars is not often seen.” But the image of transparency may be wielded to shape public perceptions of the Justice Center. Anthony’s black and white striped jumpsuit is an effective reminder that what we are shown in 16 Bars – the sixth floor – is not representative of the experiences of inmates on the five other floors. Nevertheless, an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution says 16 Bars “brings awareness to the criminal justice system and gives insight into what’s happening in prisons across the country.” But the sixth floor of the Justice Center is not representative of what is happening in prisons across the country because it focuses on a unique rehabilitation program focused on a minority of the population in a city jail. A former inmate quoted on the jail’s website said life on the sixth floor and life on the other floors is “like night and day.”
Cheliotis argues that rehabilitation programs, especially those centered on the arts, are “good stories” that appeal to the middle-class populations, who, in turn, donate time and money to carceral institutions that provide inmates access to arts-based programming. Unlike granting felons voting rights or combatting employment discrimination, rehabilitation is politically viable because the locus of change is the incarcerated individual, not the system. Cheliotis suggests that the middle-class’ funding of rehabilitation and art programs in carceral institutions might “help alleviate their lurking guilt for voting into power successive punitive governments.”[ii] Like rehabilitation, the appearance of transparency helps carceral administrators assuage public concerns regarding inmates’ wellbeing. In this light, 16 Bars is an effective vehicle for decorative justice.
[i] Cheliotis, Leonidas. “Decorative Justice: Deconstructing the Relationship between the Arts and Imprisonment.” In International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014. pp. 16–34.
[ii] Cheliotis, Leonidas. “Decorative Justice: Deconstructing the Relationship between the Arts and Imprisonment.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy, vol. 3, no. 1, 2014, pp. 23-24.