Reviews

Lockdown (2000)

Cynthia Fuchs

The trouble that accompanies them is not of their own making -- it's a function of being young, black, 'in the wrong place' by definition.


Lockdown

Director: John Luessenhop
Cast: Richard T. Jones, Bill Nunn, Gabriel Casseus, De'Aundre Bonds, Melissa DeSousa, Clifton Powell, Master P
Distributor: limited
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Rainforest Films
First date: 2000
US DVD Release Date: 2003-04-29

Lockdown opens with a swimmer slicing through the water. An unlikely start for a movie about prison, the image is also acutely appropriate, as the film tracks one man's descent into the disturbing waters of the U.S. penal system. Avery (Richard T. Jones) moves quietly and powerfully through the peaceful, deeply blue pool, as if in a dream.

From here, the camera cuts to a bedroom, panning happy couple photos and trophies on its way to framing Avery, lying in bed with his girl, Krista (Melissa DeSousa). Together, they look forward to a future that will take them -- and their young son Jordan -- far beyond their neighborhood. That afternoon, a scout will be at Avery's swim meet; having taken some time off to support his family, he now hopes to go to college on a scholarship.

Like that first shot in Lockdown, recently released on DVD, this initial situation is unusual, and promising. It appears that the film, directed by John Luessenhop and written by Preston A. Whitmore II (who made the thoughtful Vietnam War drama, The Walking Dead), will offer characters and motivations you haven't seen before.

This appearance lasts a brief moment. What follows is a series of crosscuts to simultaneous scenes bodes ill in the most obvious ways. Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus) first appears putting it to his blond-wigged girl, who makes all sorts of "bad girl" noise. When one of his street sellers comes calling, Cash drops everything, grabs up his pit bull, and heads off to take care of bidness. "Why you always so amped, man?" asks the dealer. "Time is motherfuckin' money," comes the predictable answer. Mad that his minion doesn't have all the money he owes, Cash kicks him down the steps and dismisses him, thus: "Punk bitch!"

Having demonstrated his hyped-up meanness, Cash drives off in his white convertible Mustang to pick up Dre (De'Aundre Bonds), a quiet, vaguely anxious kid who works a regular job. Cash asks Dre for the millionth time to come in with him, and Dre explains, one more time, that his mom would kill him. The point here is clear: though they come from different places, Cash and Dre have similarly limited options. And they're about to run right into the brick wall dead-end of those options.

Cash and Dre drive to see their boy Avery swim, but the trouble that accompanies them is not of their own making -- it's a function of being young, black, "in the wrong place" by definition. The twist is that they are not directly responsible, but only act the part. While the film's primary threesome are down at the meet, a couple of thugs round the way, Broadway (Sticky Fingaz) and his soon-to-be-dead buddy, roll up on a fast food drive-in, canted smoky close-ups indicating their menacing, drug-induced delirium. (Danger! Danger!) When the girl at the window won't give them all her (obviously meager) money, they shoot her in the back, in excruciating slow motion, then drive off to dump their weapon in a car that looks like theirs -- Cash's Mustang.

From here, the plot goes where you know it will. Avery and Krista go to the meet, he wins his race and makes good time, and the scout, Charles (Bill Nunn), tells him that he's on his way -- three schools will be interested. As soon as Avery and Krista embrace in celebration, his boys appear in the white Mustang. Cops pull them over, Cash behaves badly, and, a brief courtroom montage later, the three friends since childhood are on the bus to a New Mexico prison.

Once inside, each is assigned to a different sort of cellmate, carefully designed to bring out the best or worst in the three newbies. Cash hooks up with Clean-Up (Master P, also executive producer on the film), the joint's major drugs and goods mover. And Dre ends up with Graffiti (David Shark Fralick), the resident Aryan asshole who makes the poor kid his bitch. And Avery gets a mentor, Malachi (Clifton Powell), who schools him by reading from Invisible Man: "Mine is a warm hole, and I say this to you because it is incorrect to assume that because I am invisible and live in a hole, I am dead."

Avery painfully comes to terms with his own hole, and even finds some ways to make rudimentary sense of it in the raging insanity of lockdown. He takes a stand in defense of Dre, eventually extending himself beyond a standard, if understandable, self-interest. And he learns some important lessons about self-sacrifice.

The film also gives Avery help that his friends do not have: though he suffers brutal abuse from guards and fellow prisoners (Clean-Up sets the tone when he roughs him up on the basketball court), he is also fortunate to have folks working his case on the outside. Krista collaborates with Charles, whose daughter happens to be an attorney with spare time to spend on her dad's interests. This lucky combination happens on a series of narrative contrivances; for instance, they find a ready-to-be-turned Broadway, in prison for life for another murder, as well as a judge who is willing to read new documents, no questions asked.

Still -- and while these character types and plot points are overly familiar to anyone who's seen a prison movie or an episode of Oz -- Lockdown takes its political and ethical subjects seriously. Its examination of gang affiliations and brutal hierarchies in prison includes attention to the contraband economy that sustains violence and criminal activities. Rehabilitation, in other words, hardly seems the penal system's goal.

True, as Charles observes, "It's not supposed to be easy. It's prison." At the same time, the egregious abuses that occur in prison are real, part of a systemic racism and degradation, as much as they are instances of individual deviance. Melodramatic and sincere, Lockdown makes this case sensationally, but it does make it, in ways that distinguish it from sensational prison flicks like Seagal's trippy Half Past Dead (2002) or Stallone's histrionic Lock Up (1989). Lockdown, in ways less stylized than Walter Hill's Undisputed, underlines that the institution is premised on abuse, cruelty, and a presumption that all prisoners, guilty or not, "deserve" what they get, for being in wrong places at wrong times.

And, no small thing, the film also boasts many fine performances, in particular by Jones (best known recently for his co-starring role on Judging Amy), Powell (Dead Presidents), and young Bonds (Junior in Get on the Bus, currently incarcerated, in real life, for manslaughter, a point that the PR machinery is emphasizing, including an interview with him, from prison, on the official website).

And Master P, last seen on the big screen for a minute in Undisputed, acquits himself admirably. Recently, he's been concentrating on his son Lil' Romeo's career, stating in interviews that he wants to move away from the street-tough, bling bling focus that characterized his own work as an MC, and toward "community" and "family" concerns. He's apparently putting his money where his mouth is. Though Lockdown has been waiting for theatrical release for some two years, it demonstrates that his longstanding interest in film production (I Got the Hookup, Foolish) is evolving into an increasingly straight-up business. Lockdown's release on DVD (extras-free) makes it available to more viewers, who may appreciate what's reflective and resistant in the film, rather than what's conventional.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.