16 Bars: Review

16 Bars

Richmond Virginia, like so many other cities and towns before and since, is home to a jail. The host of those awaiting trials and sentencing jails see a revolving door of inmates throughout a year. Sam Bathrick’s new documentary 16 Bars takes us inside Richmond city jail and explores the lives of four inmates.

The problem with many jails in the United States, including the one we visit in Richmond, is that the faces are becoming all too familiar and through investigating an unnerving reality 16 Bars uncovers why. 

With the help of Grammy award-winning artist Speech Thomas, we explore the stories and themes that have seen black men thrown into incarceration for severe drug abuse. Speech came to Richmond jail after hearing about a rehabilitation program implemented there that gives the inmates access to a recording studio. He begins recording and producing their lyrics into songs which sees the men express themselves in ways they would have been otherwise incapable of. Speech allows them an all too brief embrace with their inner turmoil. Then, it falls to the men themselves and how they turn from reuniting with the past to embracing the future. 

Some find it easy to live on the outside after being locked up. Others see no other way of living differently from how they lived before. When you face abuse as a child, or you can’t control yourself no matter how hard you try, the odds are already heavily against you, and that’s what the men we meet face. In leaving, they return right back to the circumstances that saw them become who they were when arrested, and they re-offend.

The program attempts to change that. It’s a process of strengthening their will and expression for them to transcend their past sins, and the men we follow genuinely believe in it for a time. 

There’s repeat offender Garland who is hanging on for one final chance to be with his girlfriend and turn his life around. Then there’s De’vonte, the youngest of the four who followed in the criminal footsteps of his mother and became a dealer. Anthony is another inmate, he saw his mother abused and then watched her lie to the police about how it happened, he faced abuse himself not long after, and he’s a violent man as a result; he relapses more than any of them. Finally, we come to Teddy, who when we meet him first has been out for four days.

He saw a man killed right in front of him in his youth while trying to buy drugs. At 15 he developed an addiction to crack and pain pills so that he could deal with the things he’d seen. Of these men, Garland may be the only real criminal, and he takes legitimate steps to reform. The other three didn’t choose crime; they had it thrust upon them by circumstances out of their control. 

16 Bars is an exceptional example of documentary filmmaking being the heart and soul of truth. I honestly believe the most worthwhile stories to tell via documentary are those that otherwise would never be told, and that’s precisely what this is, delivering a voice to the voiceless.

Yes, they have broken the law, and each of them alludes to the fact that they have endangered other people’s lives which is entirely unacceptable but to use the word of Speech “I do believe in redemption, with everybody, with anybody, no matter what they’ve done”. 

Through an unwavering lens, 16 Bars investigates the ways humanity traps itself in a cage through cycles of crime. Sam Bathrick has created something special with his efforts in telling a story the world needed to hear.

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Mark is an Australian who likes movies, a lot. Now he studies and writes about them. Will watch anything Scorsese has ever touched.


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