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Exploitation behind locked doors

Director Neema Barnette rejuvenates the women's prison genre in her highly charged theatrical feature debut, 'Civil Brand.'

August 29, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

With the fiery "Civil Brand," director Neema Barnette, in her theatrical feature debut, resurrects that old exploitation genre favorite, the women's prison picture, as an expose of that contemporary phenomenon, the prison-industrial complex.

Barnette's decision to bring aboard Joyce Renee Lewis to work on Preston A. Whitmore II's original script has paid off in a compelling, highly charged film that brings a contemporary perspective to classic prison picture elements. Barnette suggests that the trend toward turning prisons into profitable factories, exploiting rather than rehabilitating, makes inmates more vulnerable.

Barnette is not about to serve up lots of behind-the-bars sex that was a staple of the lurid women's prison pictures of the '60s and '70s but, instead, makes adroit use of melodrama, drawing upon her wide experience in television and theater and as an experimental filmmaker. The uncompromising Barnette moves beyond melodrama to tragedy and finally affirmation, proclaiming women's power to effect change. "Civil Brand" is vivid and harrowing, making it crystal clear that prison is a great place to avoid.

The film proceeds on the solid promise of strong plotting and character development that, in turn, enables Barnette to guide her cast to a level of performance way beyond the usual genre requirements. Even though the filming was cut short and Barnette had to scamble to devise a coherent conclusion, "Civil Brand" should give career boosts to everyone involved, and especially its three principal actresses, LisaRaye, N'Bushe Wright and DaBrat, whose ingratiating teen-age character Sabrina serves as the film's narrator.

"Civil Brand" opens with the arrival of LisaRaye's beautiful Frances at the ancient and dilapidated Whitehead Correctional Institute, a maximum-security prison for women. In addition to Sabrina (DaBrat), in time she bonds with the tough, seasoned, proud Nikki (Wright); pretty, vulnerable, pregnant 17-year-old Little Momma (Lark Voorhies) and Wet (Monica Calhoun), the nascent activist. With the exception of Frances, who killed her abusive husband in self-defense but was ill-served by her lawyer, these women have not been wrongly convicted, but they are being forced to work as seamstresses in sweatshop conditions that offer little rehabilitation or job training.

The women are at the mercy of the ruthless Capt. Dease (Clifton Powell), a 17-year prison veteran who has no respect for the prisoners and demands sexual favors of them. A smooth former corporate executive, the warden (Reed R. McCants), interested only in profits, gives Dease a free hand in running the prison. Arriving at Whitehead about the same time as LisaRaye is the idealistic Michael (Mos Def), who majored in criminal law in college but swiftly proves to be ineffectual in the face of such well-organized, long-standing corruption.

The film's title would seem a play on the name of the L.A. County women's jail, the Sybil Brand Institute for Women, but refers to the products turned out at Whitehead, which was filmed at the old Tennessee State Prison, a foreboding Victorian fortress that provides no end of bleak atmosphere and dramatic design elements to enable director of photography Yuri Neyman to set off the film's intense theatricality with a bold flow of images.

As entertaining as it is pertinent, the well-paced "Civil Brand" is a potent calling card for the gifted, committed and versatile Neema Barnette.


'Civil Brand'

MPAA rating: R for violence, sexuality and language

Times guidelines: Too intense for children

LisaRaye...Frances Shepard

N'Bushe Wright...Nikki Barnes

Mos Def...Michael Meadows


Monica Calhoun...Wet

Clifton Powell...Capt. Dease

A Lions Gate Films presentation. Producer-director Neema Barnette. Producers-executive producers Preston A. Whitmore II, Steve (Black) Lockett, Jeff Clanagan. Screenplay by Joyce Renee Lewis and Whitmore. Cinematographer Yuri Neyman. Editor David Beatty. Music Mandrill. Costumes Fontella Boone. Production designer Cyndi Williams. Set decorator Christopher J. Pyles. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

In general release.

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