Review: John Brown’s Body at San Quentin Prison
This review by Sr. Rose Pacatte originally ran in her film blog at the National Catholic Register. Sr. Rose, a member of the Daughters of St. Paul, is the Director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Los Angeles. She is frequently a guest teacher at the University of Dayton. Monday: Sr. Rose’s interview with the film’s director, Cincinnati native and Purcell Marian High School alumnus Joseph De Francesco, who has an interesting tale about the film’s origins.
“’John Brown’s Body’ at San Quentin Prison,” a movie about the making of a play inside San Quentin and starring San Quentin prisoners, premiered last October at the Mill Valley Film Festival in northern California just a few miles from the prison itself. I felt honored to be in the audience with five of the former prisoners turned actors and their families present. All of the former prisoners had, at one time, been sentenced to life in prison, but have now been released. In fact, only three prisoners in the original 2002 play and movie cast are still incarcerated; one, released, could not be contacted.
The prison play was based on the poem, “John Brown’s Body.” Brown was a radical abolitionist, who with his sons and others, carried out a raid on the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Va, in 1859. Brown believed that an armed insurgence was the only way to overturn slavery. Ironically, the first man killed was a free black man. The raid was unsuccessful as Brown and his group killed four men and injured several. Ten of Brown’s men, including two of his sons, were also killed. Brown was eventually hanged, as was another of his sons. Brown’s actions at Harper’s Ferry and other sites, aimed to rid the country of racial slavery, are believed to have been pivotal to events leading to the Civil War.
The poem, like the prison play, and the documentary, rest on poignant racial themes.
For context, it is useful to recall that the United States has the largest prison system in the world. Though the U.S. population is only approximately four percent of the world population, America currently has approximately 25 percent of all the prisoners in the world.…
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