Women in Prison movies have long been a popular genre. Susan Hayward won an Oscar in 1958 for her portrayal of a prisoner on death row in "I Want to Live." Pam Grier's movie career was bolstered by the baring of her breasts in many a prison shower scene. The plots of these genre movies tend to be the same. Sex looms large, particularly lesbian sex. Of course, there is always the obligatory sexual relationship with male prison guards. Going back to Ida Lupino, the wardens are usually portrayed by women and run the gamut from naively sweet to brutally sadistic. And there are always gang factions that separate the prisoners, usually along racial lines.
Lately HBO has upped the ante with its raw and violent portrayal of men in prison with its series "Oz." But "Oz" is off production and no new episodes are scheduled to air until 2002. HBO thrives on hooking folks into episodic TV and then having long program hiatuses.
Since the violence in "Oz" and the "Sopranos" worked so well for the HBO ratings, "Stranger Inside," a new movie by Cheryl Dunye, comes along to fill the void. Dunye came to prominence with "The Watermelon Woman," a somewhat autobiographical film about an African-American lesbian searching for an African-American silent movie star. "Watermelon Woman," which Dunye wrote, directed and stared in, won numerous awards and toured the festival circuits.
"Stranger Inside" is also about a search. The main character, Treasure Lee, is searching for her mother. At the film's opening, Treasure is being transferred to a state facility for women, hopefully to meet her mother, a lifer, of whom she has no recollection.
Dunye's film, which was selected for special presentation at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and which won the Special Jury Award for Outstanding Achievement at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, and tied for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at the San Francisco Film Festival, seems true to life probably because Dunye spent four years researching her subject. What she found is little known: that United States prisons hold 90,000 women, and 90 percent of these prisoners are single mothers, leaving 160,000 children outside prison walls.
"Stranger" follows Treasure on her search to find her mother, played by Davenia McFadden. (McFadden, by the way, made her television debut on Rosie O'Donnell, pretending to be a housewife and trivia buff on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. She has since parlayed her 15 minutes of fame into numerous supporting film roles and guest television appearances.) McFadden's Brownie is the ultimate portrayal of tough, sadistic hardened criminals. No one survives prison without learning a way to do time and, sure enough, Brownie has her "play family" of which she is the matriarch. When Treasure meets Brownie and reveals her identity, she is accepted into the family fold.
Treasure is eventually accepted into the play family although some jealousies emerge as the meaning of family gets blurred. There is the feeling among some despite the creation of a family, that the biological links trump any other family formations. She both admires Brownie as a lifer who works the system while still having issues with her past and present parenting as well as her violent ways.
Says Dunye, "I wanted to follow up 'The Watermelon Woman' with another film that focuses on an African-American protagonist in the present day. I wanted to create a slice of life of poor women living in the 21st century. Unfortunately, many of these women happen to inhabit the prison system, and I decided to focus on what it was like inside this community."
During her research, Dunye got access to the Minnesota Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility and inmates there to get a sense of their personal histories. She wasn't interested in their crimes, she said. Rather she "just want[ed] to know how you survive a day in here."
So "Stranger," like the fictional "Watermelon Woman," has the feel of a documentary. In a successful attempt to "keep it real," Dunye cast former convicts in the prison group therapy scenes. And much of the dialogue from those scenes resulted from improv among the convicts.
For even more realness, the movie was shot at the non-operational Sybil Brand Institute for Women in East Los Angeles. The result is that Dunye goes beyond the classic women in prison genre. These women feel like the real deal. Racial, ethnic and age diversity adds to the authenticity of the film. Without giving away the twists and turns, suffice it to say that this is a strong, smart movie. For the faint of heart, note the violence and blood flows freely.
"Stranger Inside" shows on HBO July 1, 9 and 11.