Let's face it - there aren't too many lesbian films around for
women of colour, and this probably wasn't the most ideal subject
for changing that situation. However, Cheryl Dunye has become
quite well known for her independent films and documentaries dealing
with women, and lesbians, of colour, with features such as The
Watermelon Woman with Guinevere Turner and short docu-narratives
like She Don't Fade. While recognising that the
state of affairs for coloured women in lesbian film is abysmal,
let's look at Cheryl Dunye's important achievement here for what
it is, rather than what it isn't.
Stranger Inside is a powerful portrayal of a
life being lived inside a system that the vast majority of us
can only begin to imagine. Young women, some of whom have been
incarcerated the entire of their adult lives, live and breathe
and develop inside the warped world of the prison system. They
build bonds, cultivate relationships, form family groups, and
of course, make enemies. There is a whole other society behind
bars with a whole different set of rules.
That being said, I thought that the point best made by Dunye
in Stranger Inside was that despite the fact
that these women are hidden away from the outside world, those
basic needs that affect us all don't stop applying just because
these women are in jail. They crave love and acceptance, family
and friendship. They look tough and act tough, but underneath
the difference between "us" and "them" isn't
The story centres around a young girl, Treasure Lee (Yolanda
Ross, in her film debut), who can't really remember a time when
she wasn't in jail. She's done her time in juvenile and now she's
being moved up to the big league--the State Facility for Women.
But Treasure has a secret desire. She has been told that her mother,
a woman named Brownie, died when she was young. When Treasure
learns that State is lorded over by a lifer named Brownie, she
begins to hope. What if what she heard was wrong, What if this
Brownie is her mother?
Once Treasure arrives at State we meet a gloriously cruel array
of characters, the myriad of women who surround her in the hellhole
that she has landed in. They range from the guilty to the innocent,
from women who killed for pleasure, for revenge, for self defence.
Women who'll kill now for fun, and women just trying to do their
time quietly and peacefully until the day they can make parole.
There are drug dealers, white supremicists, junkies and twinks.
The best that Treasure can hope for is that she can find her own
footing within this new world, find a place within the spiderwebs
of artifical family structures and caste systems that rule this
Treasure's reunion with the Brownie and the relationship that
they build is a complex one. You can't say that anything in the
environment these women are in can be considered a "happy"
ending, but Treasure finds a kind of contentment and security
in the relationship that she's never had before, that is until
she realises that Brownie sees her more as another gang member
whose loyalty she enjoys than as a daughter. In the end Brownie
is nothing but a businesswoman trying to stay afloat in a restricted
and aggressive marketplace. Any advantage you get you grab onto
and you exploit, or you go down. Even the prison guards seem to
live by these same rules of survival.
Sexuality is treated simply in the film, without too much exploitation
and fanfare. It's used simply as another way in which women escape
reality, or bond with one another, or as another weapon to try
to control each other. After all, you need every skill you've
ever learned, in prison or on the streets, to survive inside.
If you're lucky you find people you can count on-- women with
a kind of integrity that they cling to even in a natsy, dirty
world, to help you protect yourself against those that have gone
Stranger Inside is a claustrophobic, harrowing
experience that is held up on the shoulders of some enormously
talented, unknown actresses. Only one actress has a famous name,
Rain Phoenix, and she delivers here the kind of performance that
you'd expect from someone in such a talented family. Dunye spent
four years researching this study of women's prison life, and
that research shines through in every piece of dialogue. In a
way I felt almost like I was watching a documentary, so thorough
was the production design and so gritty was the acting.
Once again HBO have hit upon subject matter for this TV movie
that is revealing and socially vital. We must examine what purpose
incarceration really serves in our society. Is it really that
much better than dropping these women on a deserted island with
knives and letting them fight it out until only the fittest survives?
How can we call ourselves civilised if we allow this to happen?
But Dunye tries to find the humane in the inhumanity of it all
and only undermines her efforts slightly by wearing her politics
firmly on her metaphorical sleeve. Despite being a bit on the
preachy side, Dunye's point is well made; this is an evil, self-perpetuating
system where daughters follow their mothers into the life and
nobody on the outside seems to give a damn about changing anything.
Got a comment? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org