Monday, 23 March 2020

Movie review: Q Ball, dir Michael Tolajian (2019)

I was a bit surprised to see that Fox Sports is one of the names behind this movie, which is a snapshot in time for some of the men in the San Quentin State Prison basketball team. This maximum security facility north of San Francisco is the oldest prison in California. It is where people who are condemned to death in the state are accommodated.

I love a good documentary, and the filmmakers in this case have produced something revealing. The director was also the writer, and the film is in three parts of about equal length. The primary focus is a man named Harry Smith, who was incarcerated for domestic violence; he got into an argument with his girlfriend outside a bar and pushed her accidentally, causing her to fall on the ground. Another man who is featured is Rafael Cuevas, who was put in prison for stabbing a man to death in a carpark after a baseball game. Allan McIntosh, a third man, was imprisoned for possessing a weapon after having been, on two previous occasions, put in jail for violent crimes; this is the state’s “three strikes” rule. McIntosh and Smith are African-American.

Prison officials allowed inmates to form a basketball team, and there are always more candidates available to play, on any given match day, than spots on the team that goes on the court. The opposition alternates between several teams made up of men from outside the prison, in the community, and the name of one team – Imago Dei – suggests its members are affiliated with a religious organisation. Most of the outside players are white, and most of the inmates playing are black.

When the movie opens, Harry has about six months to go before his release back into the community. And sometimes players associated with the Golden State Warriors – the state’s NBL team – come to the prison to play. Harry is keen to impress them and possibly get a spot on their team for the “G League”, a minor league competition in the US. Harry’s story contains the major plot points that are used to create suspense in the movie, although the effect it has is subtle; other people also help to push things along.

You hope that they will all be given a break, released, and helped to succeed. The movie shows how basketball can have a positive effect on inmates’ lives by helping them to understand their own emotions, and to control their impulses. Because they enjoy playing, being sanctioned for a breach of contract – a document all players must sign before they are allowed to compete for spots on the team – is a major imposition, so they strive to be eligible to play. Then also try hard to remain on the court. Because the sport links in with players’ emotions, lessons learned through the game have more impact and are more enduring than any punishment could be. A sanction causes pain, so to avoid it the player must moderate his behaviour.

I was impressed by this movie, although you do get the feeling that the people involved are aware of the filmmakers and their camera. I wonder if life inside the big house is really how it is portrayed in this film.

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