CULTURE

In “Hometown Prison,” Richard Linklater Looks at Life on Both Sides of the Wall

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With little fanfare, a complex and far-reaching personal documentary by Richard Linklater, “Hometown Prison,” dropped last week on the streaming service Max. It’s one of a trio of excellent films made under the rubric “God Save Texas,” based on the book by Lawrence Wright, of this publication—all of which consider the state’s history and politics in the light of the filmmakers’ own lives and families. The second film, “The Price of Oil,” directed by the seventh-generation Texan Alex Stapleton, traces the economic racism on which the state’s oil industry was built, as manifested in its disproportionate pollution of predominantly Black neighborhoods, including her family’s own. The third, “La Frontera,” by Iliana Sosa, who was born in El Paso to a family of Mexican descent, considers the historical unity of that city with its Mexican neighbor, Ciudad Juárez, and the enduring burdens imposed on Mexican Americans by white supremacy and the resulting militarized border. It takes nothing away from these latter films—exemplary blends of journalistic investigation, historical analysis, and intimate experience—to call particular attention to the power and the aesthetic range of Linklater’s documentary, which combines a narrow focus on a single institution with a conjoined exploration of the director’s life and his œuvre.

“Hometown Prison” is about Huntsville, Texas, where Linklater lived from 1970 (the year he turned ten) to 1981. He has previously explored his boyhood experiences there in such films as “Dazed and Confused,” “Everybody Wants Some!!,” and, of course, “Boyhood.” However, “Hometown Prison” concentrates on one oppressive peculiarity of the town: there’s a large prison in the middle of it, in plain view of much of daily life there, and a vast network of prisons spread throughout the town and its vicinity. The prison system is the town’s main employer. Texas, as Linklater relates, has the most incarcerated people of any state; it also executes more people than any other state, and those executions take place in Huntsville. Prisons, in other words, are a ubiquitous presence in Huntsville’s landscape, and yet, Linklater says, “At some point, you don’t really even see it.” In “Hometown Prison,” he attempts to see—and to give voice to silences on the subject, in his life and his work, that he has until now not managed to break.

It wasn’t for lack of trying. Though Linklater credits Wright (one of the filmmaker’s longtime friends, who appears on camera, as he does in the other two films in the series) with the suggestion to make “Hometown Prison,” the work is anchored in two incomplete projects of Linklater’s. The first, a drama that he’d hoped to make in 2002, was about two high-school football players who, a year after graduation, end up on opposite sides of the prison walls. The second was to have been made from documentary footage that he shot in 2003, of protests outside those walls, when an inmate named Delma Banks, Jr., was about to be executed despite abundant evidence of his innocence. Linklater couldn’t find funding for the drama and never did anything with the footage—plentiful amounts of which appear in “Hometown Prison.”

Here, Linklater breaks silence in the most direct and literal way—by speaking. He delivers a copious and confessional voice-over, complete with reminiscences, observations distilled from research, and candid assertions (as when he declares capital punishment “barbaric”). He also appears on camera, in conversation with Huntsville residents whose lives intersect with his and with the town’s carceral economy. Linklater’s recollections of his late mother, Diane (included by way of a talk with one of her friends), involve her activism on behalf of incarcerated people released into town with no support. One of the most revealing exchanges is with Elroy Thomas, a manager at a Huntsville bus depot, who estimates that, in his thirty years on the job, he has sold one-way tickets out of town to hundreds of thousands of newly released prisoners—and adds that, in the process, he has become acutely sensitive to their frame of mind and the extent of the preparedness to return to private life. It’s shocking to see a line of former inmates walking casually away from prison with no clear destination down the closed-off vista of a leafy street. “They don’t offer no rehabilitation,” one of them comments. “If you’re trying to get right, you need to do it on your own.”

Among the ex-prisoners with whom Linklater speaks is Dale Enderlin, one of his former baseball teammates from Huntsville’s Sam Houston State University, where Linklater’s mother taught. (The team was later the subject of “Everybody Wants Some!!”) Enderlin spent thirty-nine months in prison for white-collar crimes, and his main observation from his time there is how routinely young, nonwhite people are railroaded into confessions for crimes that they didn’t commit. A civil-rights lawyer, Bill Habern, who arrived in town as a public defender in the nineteen-seventies, dated Linklater’s mother, and remained a family friend, says, “I came to Huntsville and I thought I’d landed in Mississippi twenty years before.” He shows Linklater bullet holes in his home, estimating that there are twelve to fifteen. Ed Owens, the first Black warden of a Huntsville prison, says that he experienced far more racism owing to his work inside the walls than to anything in ordinary town life; during protests involving one execution, the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated outside his house.

A prison in Huntsville, Texas.

The attitudes of many Sam Houston students interviewed in the documentary belie the centrality of prison to life in Huntsville. Despite being on a campus with clear views of uniformed prison guards, inmates being released, and demonstrations against capital punishment, they claim not to pay much attention to the facility’s proximity. “I’ve never given too much thought to it, until you hear the siren go off,” one student says. Another notes, “It seems that everyone’s aware of it, but no one wants to talk about it”; a third adds, “I’ve never heard no professor talk about it.” Linklater affirms that the “disconnect” is “kind of a Huntsville tradition.” One of his former high-school football teammates says that, even now, the prison “doesn’t even come to my consciousness.”

Of course, there are some in Huntsville for whom the prison system looms large. Linklater interviews many of them: the formerly incarcerated, and family members of the incarcerated; a local historian and activist who seeks to change the town’s civic life and is well aware of being despised for it; former corrections officials, whose firsthand experiences witnessing or even participating in executions has caused them to reject the practice; and a current one who finds the rigors of the carceral system hard to bear. Moreover, Linklater recalls one of his stepfathers, a prison guard (whom he dramatized in “Boyhood”) whom the stresses of the prison system psychologically warped and darkened.

Just a few minutes into “Hometown Prison,” there’s a shot of a restaurant across the road from a barbed-wire-fenced prison unit, which has a cheerful sign announcing “Sunday: Kids Eat Free.” I was reminded of another movie in current release, Jonathan Glazer’s historical drama “The Zone of Interest,” which is set outside the walls of Auschwitz, in a house where the camp’s commandant, Rudolf Höss; his wife, Hedwig; and their three young children live, apparently pretending, to the fullest of their capacities, that their lives are normal. Unlike Glazer, Linklater doesn’t merely observe Huntsville residents’ lives alongside prison but also hears from them. He displays deep and sincere curiosity about what people involved in a cruel system—or even merely living in view of one—say, think, and feel. He probes the psychology of their efforts to keep prison from their minds and also considers the ideologies behind the prevalence of incarceration and the death penalty in Texas—including racism, class-based inequity, an enduring myth of frontier justice, brazen demagogy, and a form of Christian fundamentalism that emphasizes strictness rather than mercy—as well as the practical policies that sustain the carceral system there, including the economic motives of contracts for businesses and employment for residents.

“Hometown Prison,” with its free and hybrid form, empathetically and indignantly brings suppressed agonies to light. It does more, too. Linklater looks deeply at the town’s self-gaslighting, at how it’s maintained and who maintains it, and to what ends. The film is a fervent and trenchant work of political psychology, living history, investigative journalism, and anguished confession. ♦

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