American Chain Gang

The chain gang was a relic of the past, until a few prisons around the country decided to reinstate it. It was a highly controversial decision, and director Xackery Irving examines both sides in American Chain Gang. The documentary takes a personal look at the issue, interviewing the inmates on the chain gang and the guards watching over them. Irving goes in depth with many of the inmates to get a better grasp of the issue, but sometimes it feels like he is going about this all wrong. Irving argues that chain gangs are wrong.  There are two ways to go about this; the first is logically, like a proof.  Give various arguments culminating in a conclusion that shows chain gangs are bad.  The second is more emotional.  Appeal to people by showing the effect that chain gangs have, or do not have.  Please note that by saying "emotional" I do not mean that there is no logic, only that this course tries to anger or shock people into action.

Irving uses the latter, and because of this, American Chain Gang works as an emotional plea to ban chain gangs, but doesn't really present anything of substance.  In fact, the documentary works very well as an examination of prison life.  Irving interviews prisoners, finds out why they are there, then follows them briefly as they go on the chain gang, then at the end does a quick recap on what happened to them.  Overall, it's a fairly bleak account of life in prison, and it's hard to come away from the film not wanting some sort of change in how things are run.  Irving shot the film in Alabama, where the chain gang was reinstated after three decades, and in Arizona, home to the first female chain gang.

The problem is that you cannot really attribute these problems to chain gangs.  It all comes down to what people think prisons are for.  Are they for punishment or rehabilitation?  Two of the inmates make the point extremely well.  One wonders how working away on a chain gang will rehabilitate him.  Another feels ashamed at having to work across the street from where she used to prostitute herself, enough to make her want to stop working the streets.  To me, this and this historical aspects of American Chain Gang were the most interesting, but they took a back seat to the inmate profiles.  As a result, I don't believe that this film is an adequate explanation on the rights or wrongs of chain gangs.  Irving recaps what happens to each inmate, and most of it isn't good, and the conclusion is that since bad things happened, and all these people were on chain gangs, then chain gangs are bad.  Not quite.  Because of an absence of data, it's not clear if the people on the chain gangs suffered worse or better than their peers.  Maybe everyone at these particular prisons suffers.  Maybe Irving filmed more people and picked the ones that illustrated his point the most (probably not).  There are simply too many holes in a logical argument.  So while American Chain Gang makes a strong point, it's not the point that Irving wanted to make.

Gerf Rates It: Not That Good.
56 minutes, Not Rated but contains some language, probably an R, possibly a PG-13.

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