- 26 Years: The Dewey Bozella Story, and: Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, and: Bad Boys of Summer
Prison-sports films—that is, films about sport in prison—constitute a small-but-vibrant cinematic type, made possible by the blending of two long-established, disparate genres. The resulting bildungsgenre combines, improbably enough, the fantasy and hero worship of the sports story with the voyeurism and brutalism of the prison picture. The prison-sports film was borne of the Depression, as a small cadre of Hollywood screen-writers met the melancholia of the age with a number of popular farces, such as Alfred Werker’s Up the River (1938) and the Wheeler & Woolsey vehicle Hold ‘Em Jail (1932), as well as hard-boiled mysteries, Robert F. Hill’s Prison Shadows (1936) being the most popular example. After a thirty-year hiatus, Hollywood revived the prison-sports film in the 1970s, another period of rising crime rates, economic panic, and cultural ennui. A new [End Page 141] generation of filmmakers, including auteurs like Robert Aldrich and Michael Mann, re-conceptualized the relatively unimaginative prison-sports studio films of yester-decade by employing them as means of discussing a variety of political liberal themes, particularly racial inequality and sexual identity. Serious-minded works like The Jericho Mile (1979) and Flesh & Blood (1979) politicized the prison-sports film, bringing issues of wrongful conviction, bureaucratic corruption, and institutional brutality to the narrative fore.
After retreating from view in the 1980s and 1990s, the prison-sports film again returned in the twenty-first century, taking yet another appearance. With the notable exception of Adam Sandler’s limp, cynical remake of The Longest Yard (2005), this latest wave of prison-sports films is defined by low budgets and television aesthetics, rather than a more traditionally Hollywood ethos. Mostly produced and financed by independent film companies and cable channels, modern prison-sports films have adopted the cinema verite style of so much cable programming, mostly abandoning any form of overt political commentary. In the three recently-produced prison-sports documentaries discussed below—as well as recent made-for-TV specials like Discovery Channel’s Prison Boxing (2001)—one gets a strong sense of the genre as it exists today, as each film “poo-poos” injustice but never does so at the cost of the viewers’ comfort or the familiar sports-as-redemption narrative.
The slick ESPN-produced 26 Years: The Dewey Bozella Story has the razzamatazz one would expect from an entry in Bill Simmons’ 30 for 30 documentary project. Simmons, America’s most-read sports columnist, has commissioned a multitude of apolitical, Rudy-esque underdog tales, working a formula that perfectly befits the network’s middlebrow philosophy. Director Jose Morales strains to fit the ESPN’s “house style,” telling the story— through Laurence Fishburne’s stirring narration—of Bozella’s wrongful incarceration for the shooting death of a ninety-two-year-old woman. Sent to prison at twenty-four, we are told, Bozella was adrift, finding some modicum of inner piece in 1985 when Sing Sing Prison Correctional Officer Bob Jackson started a varsity boxing program. Following a rousing draw with New York City Golden Gloves champion Lou De Valle and a quick ascendancy to the status of Sing Sing Light-Heavyweight Champion, Bozella successfully appealed his sentence and, in 2009, left prison at the age of fifty with the goal of participating in a professional boxing bout.
The fact that 26 Years spends much more time tracing Bozella’s attempts to get a boxing license than it does on his time in prison is perhaps attributable to the limitations of the made-for-television documentary format. Nonetheless, the painfully scripted second half, replete with “genuine” emotional outbursts and “surprise” visits from celebrity athletes, smacks of an artificiality that belies...