The need for radical judiciary reform is a vastly growing issue in America. Where basic concepts surrounding the courts and prison systems are presented early on in life, the broadening avenues of information are expanding this understanding, the light growing harsher and harsher over time. As documentaries are emerging surrounding solitary confinement, mismanaged court cases, proven innocence and the aftermath of perceived crack downs on community crime – and as we see the system fail so many – Gilda Sheppard‘s Since I Been Down has never been so vital. However, where many crime documentaries look into the heart of a failed system, Since I Been Down shows the power of those rising above to make a difference and how the resources that bring success are not only around us, but within us.
Since I Been Down does not turn away from the crime, rather using it to deepen an audience’s understanding of both a time period and a motive, utilizing the past to strengthen the present. And while it delivers a grave societal criticism of the system itself, it also brings the hope for a positive change that starts from behind the concrete walls of confinement.
A Community Shaped by Crime
Opening in Tacoma, Washington in 1997, a young woman brings viewers back to the dreadful night she lost her friend to local gang violence. Utilizing both re-enactment and real-life crime scene photographs, the horror of a mistaken identity plays out for viewers, giving an immediate understanding of the environment of Tacoma at this time. Known as “Little Detroit”, the violence that would plague the Hilltop neighborhood was more deeply rooted and more complex than lawmakers were willing to understand.
From the beginning, Since I Been Down feels almost like the crime series coverage that liters the streaming platforms in escalating succession. But Since I Been Down is far from the crime saga viewers may initially expect. Rather, the film takes the time it needs to thoroughly look at the poverty and disparity that bore violence that would spread through the Hilltop neighborhood. And as this opening section paces along, there is a curiosity that builds to how Since I Been Down will extend through its run time. What unfolds is an evenly paced, and tenderly cared-for look at the past, reason, and hope intricately highlighted within the individuals that fully encompass the idea of working with what you have.
Revealed as the murderer from the film’s opening crime, Kimonti becomes the film’s primary focus. Charged with aggravated murder, a charge encompassing the firing of a weapon discharged from a moving vehicle (1st-degree murder a lower charge), Kimonti and his life sentence encompasses both the crime and the representation of many within the community – several meeting the same end after only three strikes. Where Since I Been Down succeeds is in not only acknowledging the wrongdoings but welcoming audiences to understand how such a crime, even an environment, can come to happen.
Through Kimonti, the film is able to open a portal to the past, leaving the ambitious detectives it briefly includes, and giving the power of the lens to the community. Where we start with a crime, the film evolves into just that – the community. Various talking heads speak to the upbringing of Kimonti, his multiple arrests starting from when he was 11, and the family situation that left him practically caring for himself. Through his story, Since I Been Down layers on a deeper understanding that this was not just a kid that was left to defend himself, but one looking for a family – one the local gangs could provide in their own way.
Through Kimonti, the “gang mentality” is more deeply understood by the eyes of a child, the “he shot, you shot; he dies, you die” infusion of rooted bonds that emulate the saying “blood is thicker than water”. Whether their actions were right or wrong, these older gang members that welcomed the younger crowd became the figures Kimonti, and so many others would aspire to become. As one remarks, you get “addicted to being feared”. And as redlining, poor education and disproportionate opportunities soar, so does the need to survive.
As the film embraces Kimonti’s story, Since I Been Down branches out farther, including the community as well, both in their sorrows and in their own understandings. Mothers talk of their sons being taken out of school to work for the gangs, girlfriends on how staying on the fringes is far from salvation, and still, others speak to the poverty, drugs, violence and the motivations to survive – “they will find a means to make money, they will work with what they have.”
What they have
As the documentary evolves, Since I Been Down feels as though it has been listening to its talking heads throughout its entirety, taking in not only what they are saying but allowing the film to move with them. The filmmakers allow the subjects on the screen to breathe life into the film. Where editing gives it its flow, each talking head gives it its heart. As the timeline it encompasses leaves the violence in the past, it begins to take notice of the idea of working “with what they have”.
Where the first portion of the film is a deep examination of cause and effect, leaning heavily into the idea that individuals do not choose crime, but rather work with what they are given to survive, Since I Been Down delivers hope in its second half, bringing back to Kimonti, as well as his fellow jail mates, and where he finds himself today. And where viewers may expect stereotypical depictions of prison, since they have been down, they have risen above.
From the very beginning, Kimonti is described as poorly educated, his speech an element singled out immediately. As we have to meet Kimonti throughout Since I Been Down, and as we enter the second half of the film, he is both well-spoken and well-educated. But while that may stand out in the contrast created, it is his continual strive to further the education of those around him that truly shines. Making a change from the inside, Kimonti and several of his fellow inmates have embraced the Black Prisoners Caucus, providing classes for their fellow inmates. And making education accessible to all who wish to learn.
They reach beyond just mathematics and reading, embracing political science, cultural examinations, and humanity. While this program has elevated inmates educationally, it has broken down the dehumanizing elements of the prison itself, helping to eliminate isolation and empowering others for success. As viewers watch Kimonti and his fellow teachers push for more opportunities, both at the current prison and others they are transferred to, there is a deeper sense of community and camaraderie amongst the inmates. There is a sense of hope.
This is where Since I Been Down finds its deepest strength, not necessarily in the strength of the program, but in those individuals that would both bring it to life and maintain it. Working with what they have, many of these classes are designed by those who grow into the education, empowering the voices of those they teach and challenging each inmate that attends to question and evolve in both their education – and life.
Since I Have Been Down does prove the need for society to reexamine its understanding of crime, violence, and impoverished communities. That a three-strike rule does not truly fix the problem, redlining and empowering police are only a bandaid to more deeply rooted issues. Yet, while Since I Been Down includes these elements, it also proves that sometimes real change can come from within and the resources we are given to work with.
In a nation crying for change, Since I Been Down is not only timely but a vital piece to an ever-growing picture that needs to be seen.
Have you seen Since I Been Down? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!
Since I Been Down will be available VOD on May 24, 2022!
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