'Survivors Guide to Prison': Film Review

Familiar but important points about our broken justice system, packaged for viewers who don't usually watch documentaries.

Matthew Cooke follows up his doc about the drug war with one on the justice system.

Matthew Cooke, who took a cheeky but not unserious look at the War on Drugs in 2012's How to Make Money Selling Drugs, avoids the usual documentary propriety again in his follow-up, Survivors Guide to Prison. Ostensibly a rule book for what to do if the cops come knocking, the film is less interested in that conceit than in repackaging some familiar but urgent concerns about American crime and punishment for viewers with very short attention spans. Though its aesthetic will be off-putting to many, the doc comes from the right place and is honest about our broken system; it may well reach some who need to see it, once it segues from theaters to video services.

In Selling Drugs, Cooke's unconventional approach helped him avoid the hand-wringing tone endemic in social-studies docs. Here, his tone is somewhat less appropriate: Where the former film pretended to teach us how to sling dope, this one's faux lessons are actually useful. We do, in fact, need to understand what we should and shouldn't say if cops stop us for reasons we don't understand; we do need to understand the "most important rule of all: Shut your mouth."

The doc's rather thin how-to advice is surrounded by assaultive scene-setting. In his introduction and throughout, Cooke slathers rapid-fire assemblies of policing and jailhouse videos with fake film scratches and other digital filters; his camera gets right up into interviewees' faces and lights them harshly; and when he (often) films himself, his gravelly delivery sounds like an audition to replace Will Arnett as the voice of Lego's Batman. (Contrast this with the occasional voiceover by co-producer Susan Sarandon, which is measured and sensitive.) It's as if he doesn't think viewers will take his message seriously unless it looks like a Nine Inch Nails video.

Though it briefly takes pains at the outset to note that not all cops are the enemy (it flashes "Heroes" on the screen to fend off accusations of blue-bashing), the film reasonably insists they can't be viewed as friends, either. Celebs ranging from Danny Trejo and Quincy Jones to Busta Rhymes and Chuck D voice talking points and cite stats on America's prison system. Occasionally, as in Rhymes' case, they make things personal: The rapper tears up as he recalls meeting a woman who spent decades in jail after being caught with five dollars' worth of crack.

Though the movie's points about civilian/authority interactions during traffic stops and arrests are very familiar by now, young viewers who've only paid casual attention to Black Lives Matter and other protests may know less about what happens on the other end of the judicial process: Van Jones informs them of the "barbaric conditions" in prison hospitals; Shane Bauer, who endured solitary confinement in an Iranian prison, says conditions are worse in California. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, and others speak of the twisted incentives created by for-profit prisons that rent convicts out to corporations like Bank of America and AT&T.

Scattered somewhat indiscriminately through all these talking points are the stories of two men, Reggie Cole and Bruce Lisker, who served long prison terms for crimes they didn't commit. In both cases, law enforcement officers were so motivated by their own biases they pushed cases through a system built to convict, not to exonerate. The film's attention span gets longer in its final third, as it follows the ordeals these men went through behind bars to prove their innocence — and, even after their innocence was accepted, to get out of jail. Here and elsewhere, Survivors Guide to Prison demonstrates just how seriously even a blameless citizen should take every interaction with the police.

Production company: Saturday Entertainment
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Director-screenwriter-editor: Matthew Cooke
Producers: Christina Arquette, David Arquette, Gina Belafonte, Matthew Cooke, Steve De Vore, Robin C. Garvick, Adrian Grenier, Bryn Mooser, Susan Sarandon
Directors of photography: Matthew Cooke, Steve Minor
Composer: Sebastian Robertson

102 minutes