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The Independent Critic

Curt Tofteland, Inmates of Luckett Correctional Complex
Hank Rogerson
93 Mins.
International Film Circuit
 "Shakespeare Behind Bars" Review 
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What does it mean to forgive?
Hank Rogerson, writer and director of "Shakespeare Behind Bars," was quoted as saying " I was constantly struggling with questions such as: Should we rehabilitate criminals? How does art transform the human conscience? Do these men deserve any chance at recovery? What does it mean to forgive and why do we do it?

"Shakespeare Behind Bars" is a documentary that takes place inside Luther Luckett Correctional Complex in LaGrange, Kentucky. A medium-security prison designed to house 400 inmates, it instead houses over 1,000 inmates. The prison offers over 60 programs designed to prepare its inmates for life on the outside..."Shakespeare Behind Bars" is one of these programs.

For seven years, an inmate acting ensemble has produced an annual production of, yes, Shakespeare behind bars. Rogers spent a year filming such a production, from initial idea to casting through rehearsals and, finally, through the performances.

If Rogerson were to only film these scenes themselves, "Shakespeare Behind Bars" would be a powerful film. Rogerson, however, goes behind the story and into these men's lives. The final result is a documentary that is both heart-wrenching and challenging. Rogerson allows the audience to build a relationship with these men, then, with the utmost dignity and respect he journeys deeper into their hearts, minds, bodies and souls. We learn about their crimes, indeed, but we learn so much more.

This year, volunteer director Curt Tofteland chooses "The Tempest" as their production. "The Tempest" is a powerful play that deals with forgiveness and redemption. It is a powerful theme on stage, but even more powerful seen within the context of these men's lives.

For example, Hal is cast as Prospero. In real life, Hal is imprisoned for the murder of his pregnant wife. The cast is a diverse cast filled with men who have been in nearly every production along with newcomers. There is Sammie, an African-American man who oversees a large data entry project and has been offered a job after his parole with the sponsoring company.

Perhaps, however, the most challenging inmate is Leonard. Leonard is as unpopular inside prison as he is outside. Convicted of sexually molesting seven girls, Leonard has committed a crime that even the vast majority of prison inmates considers unforgivable. His role as Antonio brings him face to face with the idea of redemption, and this same introspection is called forth into each inmate throughout the production.

"Shakespeare Behind Bars" doesn't minimize the crimes of these men, but it also refuses steadfastly to define these men by their crimes. These men are, first and foremost, who have made horrid, life-changing and seemingly unforgivable choices...but, nevertheless, they are still men.

When I initially saw "Shakespeare Behind Bars" during the 2005 Heartland Film Festival, I found myself wondering aloud why these men are, in fact, quite good actors. Then, one day, it occurred to me that for many "acting" is a way of life. We repress our hurt, our pain, our insecurities, our rage and even our hopes and dreams. We wear masks that we might, even for a few moments, be loved. We act out when we, finally, feel our life slipping away.

As I watched these men acting out "The Tempest," I became acutely aware that they doing more than just acting out a brilliant work of Shakespeare. They were acting out their lives, reliving their choices, rethinking their ideas and, in some cases, becoming real for the very first time.

"Shakespeare Behind Bars" isn't necessarily a perfect documentary, but it is a brilliant documentary.

When I first began my Tenderness Tour in 1989, I was an angry, bitter and hopeless man whose childhood sexual abuse had eaten away at my soul and left my soul feeling tattered and torn. I started my own outreach because in my mind it was too late for me. I was damaged beyond repair, unable to be loved and, quite literally, destroyed.

"Shakespeare Behind Bars" confronts, with grace, the notion of anyone being beyond redemption. Without ever preaching, Rogerson crafts a film of tremendous authenticity that dares to imply that there is hope...always hope. In essence, there is always the option to choose again no matter how many times we have chosen poorly. It may not change our consequences, but it can infinitely alter our journey.

The winner of the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival, "Shakespeare Behind Bars" was also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It is scheduled for a limited theatrical release in Spring 2006. Whether you are able to view "Shakespeare Behind Bars" in a theatre or you must wait for the eventual DVD, "Shakespeare Behind Bars" is a film that begs to be seen. With honesty, authenticity, clarity and simplicity, Hank Rogerson beautifully brings to life the true story of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" in the lives of the men of Luckett Correctional Complex and "Shakespeare Behind Bars."
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic