Doing Time

Dollars and sense: Director Cheryl Dunye

Dollars and sense: Director Cheryl Dunye

The opening shot of Stranger Inside is straight out of some unrated prison exploitation film--call it Cell Block Sistas: A group of black women inmates is dirty-dancing in your face, hooting and seemingly preparing the audience for some hot girl-on-girl action. But the difference in this film is that when the beefy male guard appears, the party stops. (Don't worry: You'll get the sex--and if you happen to be a right-wing Christian with a secret black-lesbian fetish, you'll be panting even as you dial HBO to lodge your complaint.)

This first scene is a good-humored bait-and-switch that sets up Stranger Inside's slightly sensational vibe while reassuring viewers that the movie--about (you guessed it) African-American women in prison--won't be a self-serious p.c. sermon on injustice, or a straightforward reaction against traditional prison films. In fact, considering co-writer/director Cheryl Dunye's penchant for poststructuralist theory, Stranger Inside is remarkably visceral. (The film screens at Walker Art Center on Saturday at 8:00 p.m. to conclude the "Women with Vision" series, and will air on HBO this summer.)

Dunye's first major film, The Watermelon Woman (1996), was a winsome, über-pomo mock documentary about researching a (fictional) black lesbian film actress of the 1930s. It was targeted by anti-NEA freaks, including Jesse Helms, for its "graphic" lesbian sex scene. (As mentioned above, Dunye gets her revenge in Stranger Inside, almost gratuitously so. Fortunately, HBO finds its funding the old-fashioned way.)

"I'm so surprised and so pleased," says Dunye by phone from L.A. "Every morning I wake up and think, 'This film is going to show on a major television network with a large audience of African Americans! This film is going to reach more people than if it had a theatrical release!'"

The fictional plot, conceived by Dunye, follows an almost mythic arc: A young woman, raised by her grandmother, has never met her real mother, who went to prison just after her daughter was born. Migrating consciously and subconsciously toward home, the young woman, named Treasure Lee (Yolanda Ross), works her way through the prison system in search of her mom. Eventually, she graduates to a maximum-security facility and achieves her long-dreamed-of reunion, but her mother isn't exactly the person she might have hoped. Rather, Brownie (Davenia McFadden) is the prison's Godfather, running its black market and mutilating or taking people out when she sees fit. She inducts Treasure into her prison family (including a wife and two daughters, one of whom is played by Rain Phoenix), and trains her in the family business.

In order to give her film the proverbial ring of truth, Dunye workshopped her script with a group of inmates at the Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility, under the auspices of a Walker Art Center residency. "I knew about women-in-prison films, and what they failed to achieve as well as what they achieved," says the director. "But I didn't have the right-ons about the environment." Dunye happened to find a special group of women who wanted to talk, and she partially credits Shakopee itself for that. "It's not your average prison," she says. "They had a complete gym and a variety of classes--including yoga, which I'm envious of [laughs]. These women really had to fit me into their busy schedules, which I loved."

If the plot might have seemed improbable at first, Dunye discovered at Shakopee that it wasn't. She interviewed two sets of mother-daughter inmates, and the ideas set forth in her script were basically confirmed: Children want to be like their parents, and want to be near them. Interestingly, the film never reveals Treasure's primary crime, and Dunye never asked her workshop members about theirs. "Once they became familiar with me, they were like, 'Is this really all you want to talk about?'" It wasn't, exactly. "One day this one woman stood up and said, 'Okay, here's what you want to know about the underlife, the black market, the wheelings and dealings of survival here,'" Dunye recalls. "It was a wonderful day. I couldn't keep up with everything she was writing on the board."

Dunye has a background in experimental video, which shows in Stranger Inside's beautifully shot mix of color and black-and-white, as well as its use of dream sequences, flashbacks, not-quite-narrative montages, and musical interludes. Dunye also incorporates field recordings by Alan Lomax of women inmates from the Thirties--which she played for the actors every time they got together to rehearse.

As in The Watermelon Woman, Dunye's goal here is something subtler than the artful polemics of, say, Derek Jarman's or Marlon Riggs's queer cinema. And unlike her debut, Stranger Inside is going for a more mainstream audience--not through subject matter, but through its cinematic style. "I'm trying to create this language in my cinema that makes the personal political in commercial terms: to transcend the specificity of prison culture, of people living on the margins of society, of no-income America, and to challenge the prison genre--to use the specifics of that experience to bring in everyone," says Dunye. "The commercial part of filmmaking is something new--[it's] where I'm heading as my audience grows and as my film language grows and changes to keep up with the Joneses. I'm really excited that people are getting it. It's doing more than what I'd hoped."

Stranger Inside isn't perfect. One of its structural flaws is that, in mystifying Treasure's past, the film removes us slightly from her experience: It's not so easy to feel the urgency of her need to find her mother, nor to grasp the many years that have led up to this moment. Somehow, the drama that ensues after the mother-child reunion feels at times like melodrama. Then again, other elements--such as the group-therapy sessions, shot documentary-style--feel so real that you'd swear some of these women had spent their lives inside.

"The drug-running in the film became a stereotype of what was going on," Dunye admits. "But a lot of the survival skills these women had on the street they carried on inside. It became clear to me that life inside is a microcosm of the outside--they don't escape or put on new airs to be there. Their survival skills are the same: pimping or the con. It's not in the same proportions or with the same amounts of money, but it's all about numbers and dollars, just like on Wall Street."

Dunye pauses, then adds with a laugh: "Or Hollywood."