Published February 19, 2003
Mostly a grim bit of moralizing and posturing with an over-familiarly inspirational ending, Lockdown, directed by John Luessenhop from a screenplay by Preston A. Whitmore II, attempts to establish, according to a young man calling himself “Master P,” who executive-produced it and stars as a prison gang-leader, that “prison is not a place where anyone wants to be.” Now there’s a valuable piece of information for you. Still, the movie does afford at least one good joke. It comes as one character describes the hero, Avery Montgomery (Richard T. Jones), a competitive swimmer and aspiring college student wrongly convicted of murder, as having had, before being thrown in jail, “a promising future.” Avery’s friend, a hot-headed drug-dealer called Cashmere (Gabriel Casseus) whose fecklessness combined with the malice of a feuding associate has got them both framed for the crime, cries out in frustration: “Well, I had a f***ing promising future — selling crack!”
It is a reminder of the central contradiction of ghetto life: the aspirations for a better or more promising future which are all too often expressed in terms of the kinds of behavior — especially drug-dealing and taking and the crime associated with it — that make any but the most unpromising of futures impossible. “What n*****s need to do is what n*****s know,” says Cashmere — using a familiar racial epithet that seems to be applied by everybody to everybody, regardless of race. Among the film’s n*****s, for instance, is the sadistic tattooed skinhead, Graffiti (David “Shark” Fralick), who takes the third wrongly convicted man, Dre (De’Aundre Bonds), as his prison “bitch.”
So far as Cashmere is concerned, “what n*****s know” means crime and drug-dealing, a depressing idea which nevertheless seems to be born out by the fact that Mr Bonds is doing his publicity interviews for the film from a real-life prison cell. Its makers mean for us to understand that there are other kinds of promising futures besides those that may be won by crack-dealing, but at the same time they have a certain respect for the drug and gang culture that reaches out to draw Avery in. The attitude of defiance to the official culture, even at the cost of self-destruction, never quite loses its charm for those to whom the official culture has never quite shed the stigma of injustice and oppression.
The crime and drug culture of the ghetto is thus just an extension of the prison culture which is at the center of the film. Both take place in a sort of Hobbesian world of each against all that is meant, I think, as a standing rebuke to those whom the perpetrator-victims have come to regard as oppressors and who ought to have arranged things more comfortably for them. That is why many who commit ordinary crimes and subsequently find themselves inside the big house think they can claim to be political prisoners. Their chance at a better life, like Avery’s, proved to be too fleeting and insubstantial, and that, it is easy to suppose, must be the fault of somebody besides themselves.
To its credit, Lockdown never quite attempts to make this specious claim, or overtly to apologize for criminal behavior. Instead, it stresses the importance of discipline and clean living, not revolutionary violence, as the means for staying out of prison. But in all the prison status-seeking and honor-crises to which the film devotes so much attention, there lingers at least the suggestion of the common ghetto attitude that there is something shameful about submitting to authority and living by society’s rules. The contradiction is not a creative one, it seems to me, though it may be very true to life in the world represented in this film.