Amid the ongoing discussion about prison reform, something often lost is that many of America’s incarcerated prisoners have something to offer society beyond “going straight.” The new documentary “Life & Life” visits several of those individuals, whose talents for music bring them popularity inside, and could be their redemption on the outside.
Director NC Heikin’s main subject is Reggie Austin, a musician who has spent decades inside for violent behavior in his youth. Now he is older, with his hair gray and the “drive” to do wrong seemingly extinguished. Yet he has been rejected for parole time and time again, with the board continually returning to the conclusion that Austin, in his dotage, remains a “danger” to society.
We learn that Reggie’s fellow inmates include some who fell on the wrong side of notoriously stentorian three strikes laws. As the discussion about reform continues, it bears notice that these are the people who could benefit from changes. For in a free society, there must be punishment for crime and the sequestering of dangerous individuals, but what Heikin’s film argues time and again is that too much time is being placed on the heads of those who still have something to offer outside the prison walls.
Reggie Austin is a poster child for second chances, as we see him returning to San Quentin to teach music classes to those on the inside still. Who better to understand than someone who has been on the inside?
For a moment, forget about the politics of incarceration, and just enjoy the wonderful music that these talented musicians are able to create. Close your eyes and just listen—and then realize that there are so many gifted persons languishing behind bars. Some are there righteously for their sins, while others are simply warehoused because it’s “easier.”
“Life & Life” will screen at the New Hope Film Festival in Philadelphia on today and at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival on August 9. It recently won Best Documentary at the Brooklyn Film Festival.