Filmmaker Kevin Epps has shed new light on the legends behind the legendary Alcatraz prison. Movie audiences have been weened on the notion that being confined to The Rock was largely an experience relegated to white prisoners. In fact, over the decades Alcatraz 'hosted' a sizable population of black prisoners as well. Hollywood generally, well, whitewashed those prisoner's experiences during the heyday of crime movies because of segregationist attitudes in American society. Clint Eastwood's 1979 film Escape From Alcatraz set the record straight in a minor way: at least it depicted some black characters.Epps, a San Francisco documentary maker, explores the black experience on Alcatraz in The Black Rock. Working with a very limited budget, Epps, creatively uses rare still photos combined with first-hand interviews with black former inmates and guards. The result is a fascinating and thoroughly engrossing film that educates as much as it entertains. Although most people believe segregation was largely relegated to the deep south, the film proves that the horrible practice was alive and well inside the walls of Alcatraz. Black prisoners were segregated from whites, using the old-standby excuse that it was done for their own protection. (It's amazing how racist policies are always justified by the people who create them on the basis that they are actually for the benefit of those who are victimized by them.)
Epps provides some interesting case histories regarding some of the more prominent black inmates. As a self-described social activist, Epps is upfront about his belief that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned when compared to whites convicted of crimes. Certainly, some of the case studies provided here lend evidence to the fact that, at a minimum, black prisoners were often giving far harsher sentences than their white counterparts. Yet, this isn't a film that exists to excuse the actions of its subjects. Epps doesn't sugarcoat the fact that some of the black prisoners were ruthless characters who indisputably belonged in jail. What is most interesting, however, is hearing the comments from former inmates and guards, who generally agree on one thing: this was not a place you wanted to be, even as an employee.
It's difficult to bring a new perspective to a time-worn subject like Alcatraz, but Epps has succeeded in doing so in creative, informative and entertaining fashion.