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Big-Screen Abolition

Films that imagine decarceral futures are a cultural antidote for the carceral messages and aesthetics so prevalent in popular media.


One of the main criticisms of abolition has been its lack of practical and imaginative alternatives to the prison–industrial complex and the carceral state. This claim, essential to how dominant media and political discourses reproduce carceral power, disappears a rich experimental world of abolitionist visions. With Beyond Walls, a collection of five short documentary films that bring abolition front and center, nonprofit film company Working Films is working to stem the tide.

These films are made against a carceral “televisual complex” whose conditions of production—showrunners, podcasters, business models, storytelling modes, generic conventions, and intensified crime procedural audiences—monetize, capitalize, and glamorize the carceral state. Working Films follows instead a “movement first” model: It prioritizes strategic “tipping point” moments of opportunity at the state and national level, and the chance to offer new precedents and models. Filmmakers and their communities, inside and out, have breathing room to create representational strategies and visual aesthetics that they view as most effective in interrupting the ways that police and prisons shape their lives and their communities. The screening tour for Beyond Walls—I attended one of its events in March—embodies movement principles: The films, their filmmakers, and the people in the films travel to the communities that are most impacted by the prison–industrial complex. In packed community theaters, like mine in Appalachia, the projector rolls to standing-room only. We see ourselves and the possibilities of an otherwise. 

Calls from Home screening in Knoxville, Tennessee. (Courtesy image by author.)

There is a long history of documentary efforts at responding to the carceral state—which is to say a state in which all social problems, forms of governance, and infrastructures are conditioned by the singular solutions of police and prisons. In such a society, few creatives can evade carceral aesthetics themselves. The most celebrated versions of this kind of filmmaking—Ava Duvernay’s The 13th, Eugene Jarecki’s The House I Live In, Ken Burns’s The Central Park Five, and Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss—point to the experiences of those who have directly encountered imprisonment and state violence. A seemingly good start, this “humanizing cinema” nonetheless ignores the underlying structural conditions of organized abandonment and extraction driving the carceral state and its policies. They never ask what it would take to move beyond prisons and police, toward safety and freedom. 

Instead, carceral documentaries, as part of a larger crime media complex, fixate upon the category of crime and its binaries of guilt/innocence and victim/perpetrator as moral markers to project racialized and classed dangerousness upon those rendered structurally most vulnerable. They endlessly produce “inside” looks—prisons, jails, detention, death row, police arrests and raids, you name it—that mine the horrors, if not the spectacle, of how the system works, never asking about the work that the prison does in our social order, nor the structural crises that drive it. They offer us no new vantage points to understand violence, or ways to end it, even as they compulsively reenact “the scene of the crime.” They accumulate individualized stories—of innocence, monstrousness, redemption, victimhood, and heroic valorization—without ever examining the social structures and forces that produce power and identity. They distort empathy into punitiveness, and emphasize fear over action and solidarity. Indeed, the films and filmmakers increasingly deputize themselves: gathering evidence, conducting interviews, reveling in the project of assigning guilt or innocence, of becoming “evidence” itself. High and low, from the NPR podcast Serial to the HBO series The Jinx, you know the media I am talking about.

Carceral aesthetics are dangerous: They center, consolidate, and act on behalf of the carceral state. They disappear, through dominance and foreclosure, the questions, the ideas, and the people who challenge the prison–industrial complex. They remind us that cultural spaces play a foundational role in congealing processes of hierarchy, dispossession, and exclusion into group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. These “unidirectional sightlines,” as Judah Schept termed them, wreak havoc on our ability to open the cultural and ideological space to think and imagine any alternative to police and prisons collectively, let alone to build out safety, accountability, and pathways to freedom. This problem cannot be exaggerated. It is a hard project to fight the prison–industrial complex—to imagine its end—and be constituted ideologically and structurally within a carceral state. Every effort verges on its legitimization. So we must understand what we fight against. Abolitionist media, in this moment of revitalization, act as cultural life support against this deathly view of history authorized by the carceral state.

Abolitionist media, at their best, are the antagonist contradictions of carceral aesthetics and imaginaries: They are quite simply about making things out of what we have in ways that build freedom. They foreground and model the political analysis necessary to confront the carceral state while also showing us what it looks like to retake our infrastructure and build the worlds we want, and desperately need, now. There is core connective tissue around this that makes up Beyond Walls.

These films all take shape in communities radically reorganized around the carceral state in specific, localized ways. They make powerfully evident the violence of prisons and police—how they disappear people and relationships, even entire communities. They do this by showing how intimate connections—how life and loves—are lived against police and prisons. There is little interest in “inside looks” or crime or categories of guilt and innocence, which often go unremarked upon. These are stories of what holds us together against and despite the carceral worlds we’ve been given.

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In Adamu Chan’s “What These Walls Won’t Hold,” a rich experimental epistolary style creates a beautiful visual poetics as he and best friend Isa Borgeson read excerpts of their letters from Chan’s time imprisoned in San Quentin during the COVID-19 pandemic. These scenes offer intense counterpoints to carceral discourse as they meditate on the architecture of separation and freedom dreams against the deathly practices of incarceration. Passages from their letters—overlaid to open windows and curtains moving in the breeze, to daily life at San Quentin, to oceans and altar spaces, to home and prison—read out the fears for safety but also the deep ways in which words and media foundationally connect and hold people. Chan describes in one scene receiving a letter:

As the envelope came through the door of my cell and hit the floor, I felt my heart race, anticipating where your words would take me, hoping to meet you in that place above these walls, beyond the mountains where the ocean began. It made me reflect on the supremacy of love and that that is the only form of supremacy that we will tolerate. It seems at times that words are all we have, as a world has so cruelly separated us in so many ways. And in the absence of fingertips, glances, and hugs, and so, as you say, we reach across the boundaries of time, space, and ideology to touch. If only just for a moment. Your words are meditation. And as I sit here reading them again, I feel a bit less scattered.

In Chan’s film and others in the compilation, we literally see how prisons disappear vast numbers of people abandoned to the ravages of racial capitalism. We are witnesses to an incredible experiment: the mass evacuation of what Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes as “modestly educated people in the prime of life” from society. And we see how reaching through and across that emergency organizes us, as selves and collectives, leaving us “a bit less scattered.” The films move us, awakening our political imagination.

A similar moment takes shape in Sylvia Ryerson’s “Calls from Home,” which is named after the longstanding weekly radio call-in show at Appalshop’s WMMT-FM in the mountains of Kentucky. The show sends messages and shouts-out to people incarcerated in eight prisons throughout Central Appalachia. The film itself is part of an effort to stop construction on what would be the ninth—and the nation’s most expensive proposed federal prison—to fall within the local broadcast area. A sweeping aerial shot opens the film, moving from the station’s radio tower out across the sky and mountains as you hear recordings of people leaving messages for their incarcerated loved ones. Finally, it zooms in on a mined mountain top that is capped by . . . a prison. This is something that had to be imagined in place of a multitude of other possibilities, something that organizes people’s lives for hundreds and hundreds of miles. The scene ends in a grandmother’s living room, leaving a message for her grandson “You are worthy of being loved . . . still here fighting for peace and justice,” she says, her words set against the backdrop of an animated map of the prisons across Appalachia. The messages themselves offer love, updates, memories, laughter, children reciting their ABCs, thinking about you’s, shared songs, missingness—they are raw in their ordinariness. Like the letters of “What These Walls Won’t Hold,” they are poetic, familiar, singular voices that do the work of holding the relationships to someone in prison. An act of faith that their loved one is out there, that they will find a way. Together, in combination, they are multitude—as we hear in the final scene, a cacophony of Calls from Home messages overlay the mountains, against the prison.


This review is from the collection

Decarceral Filmmaking

Essays spotlighting films and documentaries that have something to say about our crisis of mass incarceration.

Read the essays

In “I’m Free, You’re Free,” we see how this distance carries into the work of reconnection after the prison. The film opens with a man in a street speaking about the people who used to live there. We realize he is Mike Africa, standing in the neighborhood where his family was bombed in 1985 by Philadelphia police for their participation in MOVE, a Black liberation organization. His mother, Debbie, was pregnant with him at the time and he was born in jail. The rest of the film traces the complexities and beauties of their reconnection after Debbie’s release. Mike recounts how he’d never seen her barefoot (to a lingering shot of her toes) and is learning at forty years old what babies know about their mothers. Debbie recounts the trauma of Mike being taken from her, worrying about his care while knowing she had to hold herself together: “It never settles with me,” she says. The film follows Mike, now a father with his own daughter, as they move playfully (jumping on a trampoline), ordinarily (lovely scene of Mike waiting for his daughter to get dressed), sometimes joyfully across the day. And we see them working with Debbie to process and offset the generational traumas of anger, guilt, and blame that come as part of imprisonment’s core destruction of relational bonds, of families, of communities.

These rich spaces of intimacy, shouldered by immense racialized reproductive and emotional labor, leave us witness to the sacredness of connection against the exhaustion and wearing-out of carceral separation every single day. Beautiful and productive in and of themselves, importantly, these films do not stop short of requiring that we link this emotional intimacy to solidarity, not empathy—to how these loved ones work for and with people organizing and mobilizing for political change. These films center and act as political education. Families bring filmmakers and us into their living rooms, backyards, streets, and porch stoops not just to talk about how they have suffered incarceration but to allow us to join with them in the fight. There is an emphasis on how strategies of exchange work: We see how these intimacies of resilience verge on something bigger—how families hold each other across radio waves and shared van rides, exchanging letters, or producing podcasts. Through the hard work of bridging home, community, prison—beyond walls. What makes these depictions abolitionist then is the absolute refusal to let the carceral state dictate their connections, their loves, and their lives—and the use of every technology and form of infrastructure available to stay connected to, and organized with, incarcerated loved ones, be they letters, radio, vans, cameras, filmmaking itself. As Chan powerfully states, the ability to exist in relation is one of our core human needs—“to be deeply connected to one another, and ultimately in that, connected to a purpose.”

If prisons and police establish the dominant and “authorized” view of society, then these films refuse to allow authority to ensure its interpretation. They demand the right to be seen, not disappeared, where none exists—a political claim to autonomy, self-determination, and solidarity. We see this across Beyond Walls as connections to struggles are forged with people inside and out working together. What they produce is there entirely to bring more people into movements, strengthen our political analyses, and make abolition the common sense that it is. They mirror direct pathways out of the isolation of the carceral state into each other’s lives, where they build political will against the mammoth despair generated by the militarized carceral state.

Cinematographer Raymond Thompson Jr. (left) and director Sylvia Ryerson in a behind-the-scenes image from Calls from Home. (Image courtesy of Working Films.)

It is no surprise then that these films make concrete demands across a political spectrum to reduce the impacts and footprint of prisons: In “What These Wall Can’t Hold,” Chan is reunited with loved ones who have organized to protect the health and lives of incarcerated loved ones—to bring him, and them, home. Embraces, smiles, dancing, and selfies celebrate his homecoming, even as a deep grief settles in as he is separated from his comrades inside. At the end of “Calls from Home,” we are given next steps: Join organizing efforts to stop FCI–Letcher. Bring back parole. Abolish solitary confinement. In the anthology’s two animated shorts, the central demand is rational and simple, as laid out by the narrators: Invest in communities, not cages. Defund the police. After scenes from an organizing event demanding the freedom of all political prisoners in “I’m Free, You’re Free,” Mike continues his neighborhood walk. In the background, a police van moves through.

In these efforts are the foundational questions: How do we build the infrastructure to bring people together to do big things? To guarantee housing, education, and health care as rights to free and flourishing lives? To advance prison land justice in all its forms—reclamation, rematriation, redistribution? To build persuasive just economic transitions and the power of organized labor in ways that do not culminate or contribute to prisons and police?

Then there’s the idea of media-making as abolitionist organizing. In “What These Walls Won’t Hold,” Chan talks specifically about media as freedom-making infrastructure. He narrates: “What’s helped me stay connected is making media about the lives of the incarcerated. It feels like some of the most important work I’ve been a part of, and alongside some of the most talented people I’ve ever been around.” Chan helped build inside collectives that created First Watch and the podcast phenomenon Ear Hustle, where people who are imprisoned use “our own power to tell the stories that incarcerated us.” As media makers, they employ a “systems-based storytelling” mode that allows for a critical analysis of the structures that shape a person’s life and decisions. Chan describes how out of the horror of incarceration comes the joyful space of making a newspaper, a television show that reaches all thirty-six prisons in California, a podcast that would become the ear for a new and popular national understanding of prisons. “There’s a university inside,” he says. 

In Ryerson’s film, it’s the technology of the region—the infrastructure that already exists, a community radio station in the mountains—that does the counter-carceral work. And it models how anyone can do the same with their community media infrastructure. Her film also shows how artists on the inside in conversation with filmmakers on the outside can create something wildly new and beautiful. Several of the film’s most moving scenes shift from documentary footage to animation to enable us to imagine what is happening inside prisons, and how loved ones connect. We hear one person’s account of what it was like hearing the call-outs and messages from the inside through a scene that finds him lifted, soaring high above the prison into the night skies, free for a moment.

Animated scene from Calls from Home. (Courtesy of Working Films.)

Another animated scene imagines the prison visits—unfilmable because of prison regulations—through mothers’ accounts shared during a daylong van ride to the prison. Their voices are then overlaid to animations of them seeing, holding their missing sons and loved ones, yellow and red orbs of joy and love emanating out as they find each other in the visiting room. One mother describes how she can’t touch or hold her son’s hand, “but they can’t stop me from watching him.” Another states, “I know my baby—hadn’t seen him for fifteen years—he looked so good,” as eyes overlay the map of Central Appalachia, holding our gaze through space and time, distance and presence. This inclusive structure of storytelling makes this so much more than one family’s story; rather than simply individuating experience, it multiplies out, making visible the terrible work incarceration does and laying the groundwork for something else. The ride ends as a mother sadly comments, “We never know when we are going to see him again.” Abolition’s core demands take shape, including the right to look, to take in a loved one fully, freely: Let me see my child.

Media have been and will continue to be vital to freedom struggles. Working Films’ commitment to positioning filmmakers and communities to shift culture at local, state, and national levels speaks to the arrival of a new abolition media, in line with the freedom presses (in this tradition, check out Scalawag or Truthout or, for that matter, Inquest) and insurgent cinema of the past. In, for example, Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, Todd Chandler’s Bulletproof, David Feige’s Untouchable, and Sierra Pettingill’s Riotsville, USA, many of us who study police and prisons have seen images—and movements—that we thought we would never see.

Curricula and pedagogies have committed to media practices that undermine state violence, building from exemplars like Gabriel Solis’s work on Texas After Violence and Mariame Kaba’s One Million Experiments (also an important film). People have shown up with minimal production skills and maximal structural and political analysis to make transformative things from the ground up. They interrupt, crowd out, document, and demand. They model how to see us, when we see ourselves as free. Their projects are already historical legacies.

The animated films in the series are exemplary of this energy. Running at less than five minutes each, they do quick work to make abolition accessible, intelligible, relatable. “Defund Police,” produced in partnership with Project NIA and Blue Seat Studios, pulls from the long-term organizing efforts of Project NIA to end youth incarceration in Chicago. Scripted by Mallory Hanora and Mariame Kaba, the film asks where our ideas about police come from and visualizes how those assumptions and experiences, as well as policing’s origins and functions, are racialized and classed—right down to the “officer friendly” label. The piece crescendos with, “Police do not stop violence; they respond to violence that has already occurred with their own violence,” at the cost of $100 billion a year. The color palette shifts from black and white to full brilliant color as they ask: What if we took that $100 billion and invested it in our communities—the core abolitionist demand at the level of budget strategies. The illustrator then helps us imagine access to the world that that money would build: housing, healthy food, clean water, health care, healing, cooperative businesses, education, childcare, parks, art, and community services.

Amistad Law Project does similar work in “Practical Abolition” to the amazing artwork of political graphic artist Erik Ruin, as they take on the problem of putting cops in neighborhoods hard hit by gun violence. Through a visual pedagogy of animation and data, we learn that for over forty years we have increased police budgets by more than $70 billion without a dent in street violence. When the narrator envisions the transformation of the neighborhood, the black-and-white spaces of organized abandonment become investments into living wages and social goods: We see trees, fresh fruit, community centers, art, and people appear on a street in vivid color. Abolition materializes as a politically powerful beautification project that gives back the resources we need. Both films are power punches of information that could go in any classroom, city council, or school board meeting in the United States.

These films all work the muscle of imagination in relation to social needs, social problems, the social movements that challenge the prison–industrial complex and the carceral state. They create abolitionist visuals and aesthetics borne out of years of participatory media and community-based filmmaking. They allow for nonlinear, amorphous forms that hit us, move us, organize us. They treat as strange—and unacceptable—carceral aesthetics. They position us to ask new and different questions. And solidarity is the dramatic arc, as when Chan concludes his film: “I will use every tool at my disposal—my voice, my camera—to undo what has been done. Until we find a way back home together.”

We must commit to asking the unaskable questions of the carceral state in the most accessible forms possible. Where do we need to be to take back and communicate, design, build, and demand the world we need? How do we link our movements? How do we communicate the crises that have brought us here? Working Films has helped sort at least one of those questions: How do we fund our media? By supporting these filmmakers and films. Through study and struggle, they show how imprisoned people, their loved ones, organizers, and students have become media makers have become organizers have become connected have become. And abolition is nothing if not endless becoming.

Header image: Annie Spratt/Unsplash