Alcatraz in Black and White

The United States is harder on crime than almost any other Western nation, yet it has an unending fascination with serial killers, mob bosses, and high-profile white-collar criminals. The story of Al Capone, for example, has reached an almost mythological level, one that rivals the Kennedy family in the public consciousness. The names “Zodiac” and “Son of Sam” are still recognizable even though the killers were active more than 30 years ago. The federal prison at Alcatraz has been the focus of this near-obsession as well. About a decade ago, filmmaker Kevin Epps (Straight Outta Hunters Point) looked into the history of the African-American population there and found that not much had been revealed. So he set out to do it himself. The result is The Black Rock, a documentary that covers conditions for black inmates and guards at Alcatraz from the 1930s to the 1960s. It also tells the stories of several noteworthy prisoners. One was Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a gangster from Harlem whose infamy earned him the nickname “the black Al Capone.” Epps also interviews African-American inmates and guards . The fact that both populations were segregated is not a shock. Yet one incident that did surprise Epps involved William “Ty” Martin, a young black inmate who planned an escape with several white prisoners. “The irony of this is in the 1950s and ’40s there was so much racial segregation,” Epps said in an interview before a screening at CSU Fresno. “But in the prisons — in the dungeons — all they had was each other, and their humanity, so they conspired to escape.” Other stories from inside are considerably more harsh. One inmate interviewed says that about 80 percent of the prison population was made up of sociopaths, people who essentially had no feelings: “You can’t think of something that somebody could do that didn’t happen.” A discussion with Epps follows the screening.
Sun., May 8, 7 p.m., 2011

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