“Sing Sing,” narrates Laurence Fishburne, “What breaks a man here, it’s what every man loses and what each man serves: time.” Such emphasis on time is made plain in ESPN’s title for José Morales’s film, 26 Years: The Dewey Bozella Story. In 1983, Bozella was convicted for a murder he didn’t commit, based on suspect evidence (“Nothing had my fingerprints on it, nothing”) and unbelievable testimonies by two convicts who were then released. Posed in carefully arranged frames—a sharply angled view of a prison cell, interview rooms where bars cast long shadows—Bozella remembers, “Members of the jury broke down crying when they read the verdict. I said to them, ‘It’s too late, you sent me away for the rest of my life.’” In prison, Bozella found boxing (owing to a guard’s effort to focus inmates’ anger) and also, his wife Trena (who was visiting her brother when they met). As years passed, he wrote each week to the Innocence Project, who finally took the case in 2007, bringing in a “powerful New York law firm,” who discovered exculpatory evidence in a prosecutor’s file cabinet that had never been shown to the defense.
Presented with an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the 2011 ESPYs, Bozella apparently caught the attention of Bernard Hopkins and Oscar de la Hoya, as well as ESPN Films. With Trena by his side and cameras in tow, he pursues his dream, to be a professional boxer for just one fight. When at first he fails the California boxing license test, he’s upset by what looks like one more disappointment, yelling at Trena and the camera. She urges him not to quit (underlining her point in her insert interviews: “His quote to this world is to never give up!”) and soon he’s actually training for the test, with professionals who now have a stake in his success, as all are subject to ESPN’s cameras. Bozella’s story is surely compelling. But the film’s sentimental piano, melodramatic close-ups, and episodic editing can be distracting.