Trigger Warning: Mention(s) of sexual assault
My mother often had a point to make.
That was part of her child rearing strategy, lectures about the dangers of life entangled with the stories she’d encountered in the news, on television, or in films. In retrospect, it was partially traumatic, to be inundated with films like Woman Thou Art Loosed or Civil Brand as visual aids to accompany her speeches about avoiding prison. Both films are on different ends of the spectrum of representation in terms of incarcerated women. In Woman Thou Art Loosed, our protagonist Michelle Jordan played by Kimberly Elise, mostly wearing cornrows and in-between crying episodes, spent most of her time on screen talking to T.D. Jakes, a bestselling author and pastor of a popular megachurch, about her reasoning for being on death row.
I experienced the film like a fever dream, which I feel may have been my brain’s attempt to block out the things I found to be fear inducing. Michelle is being sexually abused and raped by her mother’s boyfriend, Reggie. We witness her assault through sepia toned flashback scenes where she’s bleeding after an encounter with her abuser. My younger self, no older than eight or nine, and just a few years away from experiencing menstruation myself, was mortified. My mother lay up on the couch right next to me, shaking her head in disgust. By then I had understood what sexual assault was, but I had never seen it displayed in such a visceral manner. The point of our educational viewing sessions was that while she’d never put me in contact with a character like Reggie, it's vital to be vigilant of them. To be wary of men, who are often the reason why young women end up behind bars. This wasn’t your average run of the mill “men are trash” lecture we see exemplified online, with a text exchange screenshot of a man being caught cheating or lying. This was real life, where abusers preyed on the people they knew they could manipulate. My mother’s cousin, Monica, a woman who has only existed on the periphery of my own life, due to the distance created by time, had been incarcerated. It was her first boyfriend who put her there to begin with, and she only just recently completed a twenty five year stretch.
Leaving the nest to go to college, Monica went down to North Carolina. Far enough away from the New York she’d been raised, finally able to get a reprieve from helping raise her younger cousins and siblings, all of whom idolized her. She was hardly ever seen in the same outfit twice, thanks to her summer jobs at fast food joints. She even taught all the neighborhood girls how to cut their own bangs and "get fresh.” Once down South, she’d get to really break free and step out in a new environment, where nobody knew her. It was an opportunity to forge a new identity and be the fly girl she knew she was. When she left her hometown, she also left behind the childhood nickname that were written in the goodbye cards she’d gotten from family . As the story goes, once she got there, her studies came secondary to her social life and new love interest. This is typical for college freshmen, but proved to become the catalyst for her encroaching brushes with crime. Hence, the “stay in your books” subtext of this story. Whenever recounted to me, the boy’s name is left out. Not out of forgetfulness, but mostly out of disdain. The only thing about him worth remembering is that he was the good-for-nothing asshole who ruined Monica’s life. He was a student who moonlighted as a drug dealer or something along those lines. The details of his life have always been ambiguous to me, all I know is it’s the height of the crack era and he’s in the game. He lavishes her with gifts and all the must haves: bamboo earrings, new Reebok 5411’s, handbags, nails done hair done, everything did! She gets to be seen in the passenger side of a BMW and all she had to do is hold a little merchandise. Just a little. Fair exchange ain’t robbery.
It’s not really in Monica’s nature to hold weight. I mean, she’s seen the effects of drugs up close and it’s not her scene, but who is she to say no? That’s her man! It doesn’t take long before “just a little” becomes more than enough to get arrested when the police come knocking. She’s not prepared to take the wrap, but it’s okay. He gives her the usual “Baby please don’t worry, girl it’s me and you! I ain’t gonna have your pretty ass up in some cell. When the cops ask I’ll tell them it was me and they’ll let you go. I’ll turn myself in. I’ll do whatever I have to do.” An amalgamation of drug debt, territory beef, and the infamous ‘live by the gun die by the gun’ creed had him gunned down before that plan unfolded. Monica was sold a fallacy instead by him, by lawyers, and by the D.A. And ends up doing her whole quarter of a century sentence. She’s young enough to have been released into a new world as a 40-something but prior to that her focus was on maintaining: her mental, physical, and spiritual health. Her family in New York wrote, referring to her by the same name in her farewell cards. She’ll always be that teenager in their imagination, their own form of maintaining, not letting their minds dwell on the what if’s. What if they hadn’t let her go away for school? What if she’d never met him?
Maintenance and self-preservation are big themes in both Civil Brand and Woman Thou Art Loosed. When Michelle kills her abuser during a animated church service at the end of Loosed, the act of retribution becomes a talking point for T.D. Jakes to discuss God’s healing. Make no mistake that the film is wrapped in Christian dogma, reminding us that in the midst of atrocity, a call on the lord will make things right. A philosophy that some women adopt in prison: getting right with a higher being. There’s also preservation through physicality. Lifting weights and getting their bodies right, a method Monica chose to go with. And lastly, good old-fashioned sisterhood.
In Neema Barnette’s Civil Brand, a group of women prisoners ban together to fight the conditions of the prison they’re in and starring a star line up of 90s urban media icons from Martin’s comedic star, Tichina Arnold to MC Lyte, a pioneer in hip hop. Frances, played by LisaRaye McCoy, is in jail for killing her husband. He had been a poster child of domestic violence which my mother ensured wasn’t lost on me upon viewing the film for the first time. It was a re-running staple on BET, a platform for which the film has found a home at these last few years and currently picked up by HBO GO’s streaming service. I had actually completely blocked it out of my mind, until I saw it on TV recently and shot my Mom a death glare. “I was too young to see this then!” she assured me that I’d not only turned out fine but had yet to go to prison and knew the signs of an abuser. Who I was I to argue? The film illustrates the damned if you do, damned if you don’t catch-22 Black women often find themselves in. Frances kills her abusive husband only to end up dealing with a prison guard who’s using his status within the system to lure women in his office, in return for preferential treatment. When that doesn’t seem to be enough incentive, he resorts to forcing himself on them instead. Her life outside of prison goes on without her, her notable absence putting her young children in danger, her baby daughter being hit by a stray bullet. Whether out in the world or within the carceral state, Black women aren’t protected and are often susceptible to the brunt of violence. Their incarceration can often be attributed to their relationships with the men who abuse them. Oftentimes, due to proximity within their communities, Black men, whose experiences tend to dominate narratives about prison. Free labor and other exploitative manifestations of the prison-industrial complex find themselves included in a manifesto drafted by the female inmates who've finally had enough of their captive predicament. However, the recurring issue of sexual and physical assault is at the crux of Civil Brand. Rose, a pregnant inmate, is raped by the head prison guard, and ultimately miscarries. The crimson pool of blood she leaves on the floor was the only aspect of the movie I remembered for the longest, due to its nightmare inducing imagery, but ultimately the scene felt like the necessary evil to showcase brutality these women were going through. I couldn’t even take solace in knowing Civil Brand was fictional because Frances and her comrades were very much real to me, much like Monica was my own flesh and blood.
Once you’re a ward of the state, you’re property, literally turning your body over to the authority figures and corrections officers who run the government funded cage. For my mother, the possibility of having to engage with behind a see-through partition was heartbreaking. If I ended up behind bars, in her mind, it meant that her methods of protecting her only daughter, and by extension being a mother, had failed. The matter or protection was a matter of my physical presence. “When you’re out here, I can get to you, wherever you are. In there, I can’t do anything for you.”
Both films showcase women staring down survival of their circumstances using only the resources they have. I’m no stranger to making something out of nothing, but I’ve mostly been insulated from the prospects of a future in prison by the Black women in my life. It’s not lost on me the implications of exposing me to horrifying images of a black women being violated in relation to incarceration. I have this argument with my mother all the time, who even apologized, not realizing these visual lessons would’ve made such a lasting impression. I felt it was less a lecture in not ending up in prison, but more a way to navigate the overlapping traumas that could lead to that outcome. Sexual abuse, a bad boyfriend, domestic violence, or a split second silly decision that can change the course of your life. “We don’t have the luxury of making mistakes” was a phrase I heard growing up, my parents wanting us to live full beautiful lives, but to also live them with caution. Contradictory, yes but necessary advice to curtail me from taking a path in life that had nearly broken their own sisters, play cousins, and aunties. Seeing impressions of those same women in the on-screen portrayals of Michelle, Frances, and Rose definitely helped drive the point home in the way words and sermons on the pitfalls of life couldn’t. In some small sense, I’m thankful. Not just to my mother, but to Neema Barnette for giving her the visual language necessary to articulate her thoughts and feelings.