The American prison-industrial complex has inspired a number of documentaries, and I’ve watched quite of few of them. I’ve never seen a doc like Bring Down the Walls, however, which combines the expected factoids and personal testimony with footage from a nightclub featuring house music. The unique form of this documentary was inspired by a unique social institution: a former fire station in lower Manhattan which by day serves as a center of operations for activists against mass incarceration and provides legal consultancies and other services to aid former prisoners, and by night is a nightclub whose patrons include many individuals and families scarred by their involvement with the criminal justice system.
Phil Collins’ documentary Bring Down the Walls is less interested in stating abstract statistics than in putting a human face of American policies of mass incarceration. The context is important, however, so it’s worth noting that the United States is the outlier among our peer countries. For instance, the average rate of incarceration in the OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, whose members include most of Europe plus other industrialized countries like Canada, Australia, and Japan) is about 137 per 100,000 population, while the U.S. has about 700 per 100,000, over three times the next highest country.
Facts are facts, but they rarely change anyone’s mind. This explains why Collins chose a different method to make his points, with a focus on personal stories leavened with the joy of music and dance. It’s no secret, for instance, that many Black men in America are regularly arrested for things that are technically illegal but commonly done (like riding a bicycle on the sidewalk)—and guess who generally gets a free pass for that kind of violation?
When lots of people break the law, but it’s only enforced on people who share certain characteristics, that’s discrimination in action. And becoming involved with the criminal justice system may alter the course of a person’s life, to say nothing of the lives of their family and community. But it’s one thing to hear me say that, and another to hear it come from the mouths of people who have suffered that very fate. The personal stories and the political insights are connected, but the former makes the impact necessary for the latter thought to be absorbed.
It’s no accident that house music is featured in Bring Down the Walls: the genre was created by largely marginalized communities, including queers and people of color, at the same time as the policies of mass incarceration for minor offenses, including things like marijuana possession, became common in the United States. For this reason, the directorial choice to marry this style of music and dance with anti-incarceration activism makes perfect sense, and it also makes Bring Down the Walls a joy to watch while at the same time providing enlightening lessons about the human cost of mass incarceration. | Sarah Boslaugh
Bring Down the Walls will have an in-person screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Oct. 21, as part of NewFest 2021, and is also available for home viewing through October 26. Further information about tickets, passes, forms of access, and the complete film lineup is available from the NewFest2021 web site.