Chain gangs provide one of the most striking and memorable images in law enforcement: A thin line of prisoners stretched out on the horizon, shackled together, working on the sides of rural roads. But while this form of punishment is known best as part of the antiquated post-slavery era, it was reinstated in some states within the last decade. The 1999 film American Chain Gang takes a look at this concept from a variety of viewpoints but, at under an hour, doesn't really give itself enough time to delve far enough into a complex subject.
Filmmaker Xackery Irving was obviously committed to portraying the different sides of this controversial subject and his footage shows a level of commitment that's impressive. Ths film includes a lot of footage out in the field with a couple of chain gangs, including an all-female crew in Arizona and a hardened chain gang in Alabama. Interviews with inmates and guards carry equal weight in Irving's film, as each participant brings his or her unique perspective, whether it's an Aryan brotherhood inmate, a fast-talking young convict, a grizzled veteran guard who wouldn't hesitate to shoot an escaping prisoner, or a young cadet who wants to work the chain gang because of the excitement of the job. One officer seems almost exasperated when he offers that chain gangs are worth trying because nothing else seems to help reduce convict recidivism. Prisoner rights activists focus on how grueling the chain gang sentence is while one former convict, who served on a chain gang many years ago talks about how incredibly harsh it was back then.
If any one figure comes out as most memorable it's Douglas Vaxter, an Alabama convict who at age 20 already sports a rap sheet longer than many lifers. There's something magnetic about this hopeless young man who talks about life behind bars with the slickness of a film star. But his dulled sense of responsibility and his non-existant outlook on the future are depressing to an extreme. And in the film's final text updates, Vaxter, along with virtually all of the convicts profiled, doesn't escape the criminal life.
American Chain Gang doesn't lay a particular viewpoint on too heavily. It suggests that the chain gang doesn't do any good in terms of reform, but based on the interviews with those who support the system rehabilitation isn't necessarily the point anyway. The film touches on Alabama's gruesome use of hitching posts and the frequency of rape in prisons where one guard may be responsible for four hundred inmates, so it's clear that the system is exceedingly harsh. But it's hard for a one hour piece to go much further than a few smart observations and profiles. Perhaps if Irving had the chance to explore more of the system instead of such a small slice he could have really dug into the depths.
The full-frame video is very grainy and at times digital compression becomes visible as well. Outdoor scenes are cinematic but technically this video is not great.
The soundtrack is fine. Voices are mostly clear, if not especially distinct. No subtitles are included.
The only extra related to the film on the DVD portion of the disc is a photo gallery slideshow. There's also a trailer for The Future of Food, a documentary on genetically engineered food. The DVD-ROM portion of the disc also includes pdfs of letters written by some of the convicts in the film. This could make fascinating reading for anyone interested in getting a little further into the minds of the film's subjects, especially since the scans are of the original handwritten letters. There are also some weblinks.
American Chain Gang is thoughtful and even-handed, if too short. The filmmakers were obviously willing to do the legwork to get the footage and access to the right material but in the end the subject just proves much bigger than the short running time will allow. Still, it's worth a look for anyone interested in the subject matter.