Movie Reviews

Movie Review: Brubaker – The Arkansas Prison System Exposed by One Man

Written by W.D. Richter, Arthur Ross, Thomas O. Murton, Joe Hyams, and Bob Rafelson
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Once upon a time in Arkansas, there was a prison ripe with corruption. Inmates were forced to work for local merchants while prison officials and guards raked in the money. Food intended for the prison population was sold off to local restaurants. Men routinely disappeared or were outright murdered in front of the other prisoners.

Robert Redford is Brubaker, a man who goes undercover at Wakefield Prison to get a feel for what’s really going on there. After witnessing the corruption and violence going on first-hand, he announces that he’s the new warden. He’s come in as a prisoner to get a feel for the prison and is now determined to clean up the corruption while at the same time maintaining discipline and order.

However, he faces resistance not just from the prison staff and locals who have benefited from the corruption all these years, but from some of the inmates themselves. Brubaker comes off as one man fighting the system as he slowly loses support the more single-minded he becomes about getting to the root of what has taken place at Wakefield.

Make no mistake, these are hardened criminals and I didn’t feel as if I were supposed to pity them. However, they were shown to be human beings who as such were entitled to a certain amount of decency. Brubaker was made in 1980, and I don’t know if the current general society where we shrug our shoulders at the horrors of Abu Ghraib Prison and the murdering of black Americans on camera will have that same sense of decency due a prison population.

The story is based on the story of Thomas Murton who penned the original novel about his experiences as a warden in Arkansas. Much of what is portrayed in Brubaker parallels those experiences although some liberties have been taken.

For the most part, the acting is well done. I thought David Keith did a terrific job as a skeptical inmate who ends up being Brubaker’s biggest ally. Yaphet Kotto is another inmate who is difficult to pin down throughout the movie. At times he seems to embrace the changes Brubaker is making; at others he’s resistant. It takes most of the film to figure him out.

Jane Alexander holds her own as virtually the only woman in the cast. She’s strong without losing her femininity at a time when women were just starting to break through some of the social barriers which prevented them from holding a position such as hers. It’s a hard line to straddle as too much strength would have her tossed aside as either a “bitch” or lesbian.

Morgan Freeman is also in Brubaker as a prisoner confined to a solitary room. He does a terrific job with what is really a small role and shows signs of what his career would be in ten years.

The biggest problem is Redford himself. He did an okay job as the warden, presenting a strong façade in the face of all opposition. However, he looked too good for the role. He stood out above the prison and guard population, which would have been fine if he came across as more animated. During his time as an inmate, he stayed quiet and seemed to possess a “deer in the headlights” look the majority of the time. Once he revealed himself, what was supposed to be portraying strength just didn’t convince me.

I was surprised at the excellent quality of the movie on DVD after all these years. The prints have been kept well and the DVD picture was really good.

As far as prison movies go, this one isn’t horrible. I think there was possible miscasting with Redford, but it’s not horrible by any means. The violence – both graphic and insinuated – might turn some people off but it’s not gratuitous by any means. Overall, I’d recommend it for viewing as I think we really have to challenge our views at times in regard to what is the level of respect due to someone as another human being.

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