16 Bars

16 Bars

16 Bars

directed by Sam Bathrick

starring Todd ‘Speech’ Thomas

MVD Entertainment, Lightyear Entertainment

This is my second Richmond, VA documentary in a year, and neither has been terribly cheery. Tonight we consider an innovative prison social help program in that city’s jails. Lead by Todd “Speech” Thomas (Arrested Development), this innovative project takes some of the most promising prisoners and allows them to record music, write their own songs, and produce them. The jail has a nice enough recording studio, and Speech shows up once a week to help with encouragement and technical advice. It’s not Duran Duran quality, but it’s good enough for this rough hewn set of offenders.

This doc begins with Speech retelling the story of how he approached them and got the program rolling. Then we cycle between life in the prison and, time in the studio and life on the street. Most of these men are drug addicts with few skills and a background of petty crimes, addiction and prostitution. We hear a tale of a young man offered a choice by his father: clean up and move in with his mother and get a regular job or remain with dad and prep for a life of drugs and jail and early death. His decision was easy, and destructive. As we peer into life in a medium security prison, we cheer for a hope of “rehabilitation” and counselors struggle to hold these men barley hanging on to some sort of rule system.

Some make it out and some don’t. The jail is bright and sterile, and the day room brims with blue jump suits and amazing tattoos. The music feel heartfelt even if technically weak. But Speech remains positive and hopeful, and he genuinely wants to improve things. The tone here is honest: most of these men will remain in and out of the clink all of their lives until they die of an overdose or a bullet. We tread carefully though these gritty tales, laid out piece by piece and leading to ambiguous endings. Some of these men may make it out of “the life”, most won’t. But if Speech save a single man, it’s worth it. Their stories sound raw and bloody, and here we observe them, laid out for our observation.


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