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Last Chance High

These Powerful Movies Expose America's Broken Criminal Justice System

Some essential on-screen examples that show, rather than just tell, audiences what isn't working.
Image via YouTube

Movies have always helped people work through their shit, but a recent study at Cambridge University found that certain films actually help viewers understand some of the world's complicated problems beyond just being entertainment. Films can implore us to talk about social issues that make us uncomfortable and inspire debate.The broken criminal justice system in the US has plenty of on-screen examples that show, rather than just tell, audiences what isn't working.


Thanks to the bevy of streaming services available right now, films that defy our ideas about justice and inequality are just a click away. Here are a few examples to challenge our beliefs about America's criminal justice system.

8. 13TH (2016)

Selma director Ava Duvernay sheds light on the tragic but true story of the US prison system with her harrowing Netflix documentary, 13th. Viewers learn how the Constitution helped create a booming business through the privatization of prisons by exploiting the clause in the 13th Amendment that abolishes slavery or servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Duvernay's doc addresses the disproportionate number of African-Americans in prison and features shocking interviews from activists, leading experts and political figures who explain why.

In one unsettling interview, former Speaker of the House, and current Donald Trump surrogate, Newt Gingrich illustrates how political parties used crime to not only target black and brown people, but to win elections. Gingrich outright admits that the criminalization of people of color helped President George H.W. Bush win in 1988, and contributed to President Clinton's Crime Bill in 1994. The bill not only gave $9.7 billion to fund prisons, but is mostly known for its three-strike policy where repeat offenders could earn a mandatory life sentence.

7. The Central Park Five (2012)

Directed by documentarian/historian extraordinaire Ken Burns, along with Sarah Burns and David McMahon, The Central Park Five delves into the 1988 case involving five teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a woman in Central Park in New York City.


The film carefully lays out what resulted in five men of color confessing to a crime they didn't commit, but it also deconstructs the ways that systemic racism was a key factor in determining their guilt. The film illustrates how media can impact the idea of a fair trial, but also how racism contributes to the mass incarceration rates of people of color.

6. Eyes Of The Rainbow: A Documentary Film with Assata Shakur (1997)

If you wondered why President Trump demanded that the Cuban government return political prisoners like Assata Shakur to the United States during his June 2017 statement rolling back President Barack Obama's open-Cuba policies, this documentary will share exactly who she is. The story chronicles the life of Assata Shakur -- Tupac Shakur's grandmother -- who escaped to Cuba after being convicted of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster in 1973.

Directed by Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, the documentary explores Shakur's journey from activist with leftist political group Black Panthers to political prisoner, but also specifically zeroes in on how black women are negatively impacted by the justice system.

5. The Farm: Angola, USA (1998)

In this documentary, viewers follow the lives of several inmates at maximum security prison Angola in Louisiana, which was known as one of the largest and most dangerous holding facility in the 1990s. The film snagged a 1999 Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary feature for directors Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack, as well as inmate Wilbert Rideau, a prisoner who was also credited as a director on the film.


The movie questions the idea of innocence and what crimes warrant a second chance. Some of the inmates argue that redemption is earned through good behavior behind bars or that their case should be revisited due to lack of DNA evidence against them. Prisoners like Ashanti Witherspoon struggle to build their case after serving 20-plus years for an armed robbery in 1962 after it resulted in a shootout with police in Shreveport, Louisiana. Although Witherspoon does not say he was innocent, he asks for a second chance because of the work he's done behind bars.

  1. OJ: Made In America (2016)

This Oscar-winning film directed by Ezra Edelman carefully explores the rise and fall of Heisman trophy winner O.J. Simpson. Simpson's trial remains one of the most prominent cultural debates about race and the criminal justice system of our time. Not only was it was one of the most watched cases on television, but the doc shares a famous black man's fall from grace.

The 1995 trial comes at a time in the US when the political climate insisted on a "tough on crime" stance. The documentary shows how racial tensions in cities like Los Angeles peaked with the war on drugs that criminalized men of color. Simpson's race and his fame makes him the exception to the narrative, but also a likely target for police after two bodies were found on his ex wife's property. Simpson was accused of stabbing his ex-wife, 35-year-old Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend 25-year-old Ronald L. Goldman. But the seemingly unthinkable happens: Simpson is acquitted despite the overwhelming societal norms for black men who commit similar crimes pointing to a guilty verdict. The broad narrative of the film challenges viewers to think about how class privilege doesn't overshadow the ugly truth about institutionalized racism in America.


3. Kids For Cash (2013)

Kids for Cash tells the story of how young people from Luzerne County, Pennsylvania were harshly sentenced for minor infractions, such as creating a fake Myspace account of their teacher or cursing out a student's mother. Those sentences lead back to Judge Mark Ciavarella who pledged to be tough on teen crime when he was first elected in 1995.

The doc reveals that in 2009 Ciavarella and Judge Michael Conahan accepted over $2 million dollars in kickbacks for a for-profit juvenile detention facility and sentenced over 2,000 young people as part of the deal. Later dubbed the "Kids for Cash" scandal, the film follows the story of Ciavarella banging the drum about being tough on crime and the parent who decided to challenge his motives. One victim of the scandal, Phillip Swartley served nine months in a juvenile detention center for stealing change from unlocked vehicles for junk food.

Kids for Cash uncovers how silence from Ciavarella's peers and willingness to lump all youth delinquency with dangerous crime contributed to his decisions go unchecked. On a broader scale, it illustrates how the privatization of the prison system incentivizes harsher sentencing and thrives on higher rates of incarceration.

  1. Capturing The Friedmans (2003)

A middle class Jewish family becomes the center of a child sex abuse case when a father and son are accused of abusing students in the family's community computer class. The documentary positions fear as the motivating factor in deciding the fate of Arnold and Jesse Friedman, who plead guilty. It also highlights local news coverage and the actions of law enforcement in Nassau County, Long Island pressuring witnesses to deliver damning evidence. While the evidence found on Arnold Friedman and his confession made a clearer case for his guilt, the film offers a conflicting argument about Jesse.

Years later, the same witnesses who testified to the Friedman's misconduct recanted their statements. The film not only makes you question the validity of truth in the criminal justice system, but the role the media plays in deciding guilt.

1. After Innocence (2005)

Filmmaker Jessica Sanders documents the experiences of a group of wrongfully convicted men after they are exonerated based on DNA evidence for crimes they didn't commit. Without their records being expunged, and having served long sentences without parole, exonerees struggle to re-enter society. After serving time for over a decade, former inmate Vincent Moto experiences the challenges of trying to find employment when he has to admit he was once convicted of a crime on application. The documentary tries to makes sense of how exoneration does not simply erase the negative impact the criminal justice system has had on exonerees, and the need for reentry programs that help formerly incarcerated individuals.