'Skid Row Marathon': Film Review

Skid Row Marathon-Publicity still-H 2019
Courtesy of OWLS Media
Highly motivational.

Mark Hayes' documentary concerns a Los Angeles judge who started a running club on Skid Row and the members who got a second chance at life.

It may reflect my innate cynicism, but all I could think about while watching Mark Hayes' documentary was how astonishing it was that it hadn't yet received a feel-good, big-budget Hollywood treatment. Skid Row Marathon, which focuses on a Los Angeles judge who organized a running club to help homeless people and ex-cons, features an uplifting narrative and compelling characters. For the sinewy, charismatic judge, think Sean Penn.

That's not to diminish the power of the film which illustrates how rehabilitation can be fostered in the most unlikely ways. The central figure in the story is Judge Craig Mitchell, whose socially conscious leanings began early in his life when his mother, who died when he was only 9 years old, took him to places like Watts instead of Disneyland. Mitchell, who at one point considered becoming a priest, taught high school in South Central Los Angeles for 17 years before deciding to go to law school. He became a L.A. prosecutor in 1994, and then a judge in 2005. The doc shows him issuing prison sentences from the bench, some of them quite lengthy. The responsibility clearly weighs heavily on him.

Mitchell's life changed when a recently released prisoner whom he had sentenced invited him to visit the Midnight Mission in Skid Row. Mitchell, who has a lifelong passion for running, came up with the idea of starting the Midnight Mission Runners Club. The doc, shot over several years, profiles several individuals whose lives were changed as a result of their participation.

All of them testify about how their newfound discipline and devotion to physical activity helped them overcome their troubled pasts. David, who lived on the streets for 10 years, is trying to become an artist. Ben was a fairly successful rock musician before succumbing to drugs and alcohol; now sober, he aspires to (what else?) writing music for films. Single mother Rebecca and her young son were homeless for years before moving into in the Midnight Mission, but she is now actively looking for work as a surgical technician. Rafael served 28 years in prison for murder, but now dedicates himself to counseling children about the perils of a life of crime. And Mody was a college student in New York until his addictions derailed his studies.

Skid Row Marathon provides plenty of opportunity for these club members to relate their stories, and for Judge Mitchell to describe his motivations. The film includes many scenes of their running together, which become repetitive over the course of the feature-length running time. The doc also chronicles the group's trips to Ghana and Rome to participate in marathons, resulting in much travelogue-style footage.

That the running club is not a guaranteed cure-all becomes movingly evident when we learn that Mody has suffered a serious relapse and begun living on the streets again.

Mitchell proves as interesting a figure as the downtrodden people he's dedicated to helping. More often seen shirtless or in a tank top and shorts than a judge's robe, he would certainly qualify for a "Sexiest Judges of Los Angeles" calendar should one ever be created. His passion for running could be described as an obsession, especially after it's revealed that he suffers from a serious spinal condition that led his doctors to advise him never to run again. In terms of addiction, Mitchell may have more in common with the folks he's trying to help than he's willing to admit.

Production company-distributor: OWLS Media
Director: Mark Hayes
Producers: Gabriele Hayes, Doug Blush
Director of photography: James Stolz
Editors: Tchavdar Georgiev, Benjamin Dohrmann
Composer: Kim Planert

85 minutes