Review: Louis Theroux: behind Bars (BBC2)
Preview from the Radio Times:
Louis Theroux: behind Bars
Sunday 13 January
9:00pm – 10:00pm
This is Louis Theroux at his best, not toying with eccentrics but taking on a meaty story. When Louis gets his teeth into a situation, he genially peels the layers from a story and lets us see it anew, while apparently doing little more than chat idly. In this case its life in San Quentin State Prison in California, from where Louis (and his director/ cameraman Stuart Cabb) deliver a series of striking, often poignant encounters. Life in San Quentin means, in many cases, life. There’s a 21-year-old first timer facing “50 to life” for murder who argues, possibly for his own sanity, that “it’s like a playground here”. It doesn’t look like it, although there is humour, good cheer and more romance than you might think. You may even be touched by the budding relationship between the ex-Nazi gang member and the gay Jew.
Source: Radio Times
I really, really got a lot out of this documentary. Louis Theroux is known for his ultra deadpan approach to documentaries, never more so than when he’s doing them stateside. I’ve seen the ones he’s done of the plastic surgery industry and also of Hollywood’s seedy porn industry. In this doc he was in one of the toughest maximum security prisons in the United States. And it was brilliant.
It’s late so I can’t go on at length, but what fascinated me from the very outset (and I expect most who watched it) – were the relationships between the men. There were brothers in arms, comrades, tribal allegiances formed in blood (or should I say tattoos – mostly along racial lines) – and lovers. ‘Deborah’ – the transvestite was charming. She was seeing ‘Robert’, an Adonis-like younger thing who was head over heels in love, staunchly reaffirming when pressed by Louis, that they’d still be together ‘on the outside’. Deborah was a bit more worldly and candid, giving Louis something of a sideways knowing look which said “young, earnest love, eh?”. You saw her again just as she was being released. She had a disarming smile and infectious laugh; you liked her instantly.
I was shocked by the number of transvestites in the prison. I kept seeing them appearing as the camera panned. This prison, housing some of the toughest, roughest, grittiest, butchest, ‘manly’ men you’re ever likely to see in one place – and all these ‘man-women’ there too. And they all seemed to get on.
I don’t want to spend hours writing this post so it’s not going to be excessively heavy – but it re-affirmed one absurdly obvious thing. That men have loved men since the dawn of time. It actually reminded me of ancient Greece and some of what I’ve read about that period. Sure, in our Western Civilization it’s still often frowned upon, often not accepted (or accepted with strings attached – conventional gay relationships/stereotypes/expectations thrust upon you, etc), but in that ‘other’ reality of the prison – ungoverned to a large extent by the socially accepted mores of the outside – it flourished. I know – the counter argument is “yes yes yes – but there were no women in there, it’s a sex thing”. But I disagree entirely with that. These were men having monogamous same-sex relationships that were based on companionship, love, understanding and male bonding; not purely on sex. Of course there will be lots of sex-only based relationships, it’s no different to other all male environments *cough* boarding school *cough*. But this revealed (and reminded me…) of the much, much wider panoply of male-to-male relationships that can and do exist…
Another example were those ultra ‘butch’ white guys he had lunch with who were as hard as nails, saying anyone who shared their food with a black inmate would be beaten up (the entirety of the prison self-segregate along racial lines, but that’s beyond the scope of this post). Anyway, they hugged one another when they were split to go back to their own cells. It was automatic. It’s fairly safe to presume they do this every day of their lives.
There was then a bit on the white supremacist ex-Nazi, a jovial chap, 37 or so. He’s married on the outside and has two children, but has fallen in love with a bubbly young thing called Chris who wears a little mascara and is a pound or two overweight. Chris also happens to be Jewish. I almost wept. It was desperately touching. Just seeing how they were with each other.
There is so much about same-sex relationships that is entirely lost behind cliché, the all-enveloping rainbow flag and the ‘count yourself in’ brigade. This was the antithesis – the ‘back to basics’ – a revelation and reminder of the primal nature of male-to-male relationships. And it was brilliant.
Am keen to hear the views of others who watched it.
See clips of the episode and read more about it here on the BBC website.
Or, watch the whole thing online using the BBC iPlayer (I think you have to be resident in the UK for this to work).
EDIT: There’s also a good article on the BBC (news site), on their magazine pages. This appears to give a lot more detail about San Quentin and about the program itself, what they encountered, etc.