Hopelessness, wasted potential, and struggles behind bars, both literal and metaphorical, are all themes covered in 16 Bars, a documentary film directed by Sam Bathrick.
16 Bars focuses on a jail in Richmond, Virginia, and specifically a program that allows inmates to create and record music with Grammy-winning recording artist Todd “Speech” Thomas, of the hip-hop group Arrested Development.
Heading this program is Dr. Sarah Scarborough, a woman who deeply cares for the inmates, but also holds them to a high standard.
Only the ones on best behavior, and of course interested, are given studio time with Speech, and in that studio we are given a unique look at how the music is made.
Four inmates are featured, and offer different musical styles, backgrounds, and reasons for being locked up in the American prison system that seems all too content with leaving people there.
Anthony Johnston is a passionate, yet troubled young man who raps his lyrics with such ferocity that sometimes he stumbles over his words.
“Time is just a deadly weapon waiting for you to slip up,” raps Johnston.
This lyric caught Speech’s attention as it related to Johnston and inmates in general.
But for all the passion in which he raps with, comes the fiery temper that consistently puts Johnston’s position in the program into question. And then when he gets released from the jail (in a weird moment that casts aspersions on the justice system), he has no place to live, and little ability to stop himself from falling back into bad habits.
Teddy Kane is a man in his late-30s who leaves the biggest mark on the film. Released from prison shortly before Speech arrives, Scarborough lets him come back to record.
Through Kane the audience witnesses the difficulties convicts face once they return to the streets. The system is not made for rehabilitation; the world outside the jail walls is almost as bleak as the world inside.
“Lock a dog in cage and mistreat him, what you think gon’ happen once you release him?” raps Kane.
Perhaps the most beautiful part of the film comes when Speech and Kane agree to have the chorus of his song be sung by a children’s choir, with them roaring the lyrics “inspire me!”
Garland Carr gives the audience a touch of country and blues. He has a voice and charisma that should allow him to be a star, but Speech wonders if the opportunity is lost because of his place in jail.
Still, his resolve is commendable, and he seems extremely optimistic about his circumstances. He is also extremely grateful for the opportunity Speech has given him.
“Dead in the water, I went wrong. I’ve been drifting way too long.”
Finally, there is Devonte James, a young man who seems, among the four, most out of place in the prison walls. His circumstance is an extremely sad one, as his mother and her habits were (and are) the main thing forcing him down the wrong path.
Good-natured, smart, and kind, James makes magic in the studio with Speech, and gives the viewer a further glimpse on the problems convicts face when they return to their old lives after jail.
“So listen to these words when you’re feeling like life is over,” James gleefully declares.
We had the opportunity to pull up to a screening of the film, and listen to a Q&A after featuring Bathrick, Scarborough, and Speech. Speech stole the show with his impassioned comments on the criminal justice system, race, and the severe disadvantage black people are faced with in this country.
This film was replete with emotions, and had a beautiful finale. Like the name of the program that allowed for this music, it was REAL. There is no quick fix to the problems the criminal justice system causes in this country, and this film does not try to pretend like it has the answers.
What it does is offer a unique look at inmates and the beautiful art they can create when given some care, love, and motivation. We’re wishing the best for these four men, and of course Speech, who without him, none of what we saw would have been possible.