Cast the First Stone shows a side of Angola prison that most people never see—the good side. The film focuses on inmates in the prison’s Drama Club who, along with female inmates from the nearby Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, are preparing to stage a production of The Life of Christ. Like the play they’re producing, the story of Cast the First Stone is one of forgiveness and redemption as these men and women find salvation in one of the country’s most notorious prisons.
In recent years, Angola’s reputation has started to turn from one of America’s worst prisons to a shining example of rehabilitation. Much of the credit goes to Burl Cain, the warden at Angola since 1995. Cain is a divisive figure, praised for his efforts to reform the culture of violence at Angola, and denounced for his harsh treatment of those inmates who don’t toe the line.
“He uses a huge carrot, and he uses a huge stick,” says David B. Deniger, executive producer of Cast the First Stone.
This film focuses mainly on the carrot.
Cast the First Stone isn’t so much about the inmate’s production of Life of Christ as it is about the men and women who are involved in it. The production is helmed by Gary Tyler, an inmate at Angola since 1974, serving life without parole for second-degree murder. Jesus is played by Bobby Wallace, serving 66 years for armed robbery. Levelle Tolliver, who plays Judas, is another lifer. So is Sandra Starr, convicted of killing an abusive boyfriend, who plays Mary Magdalene. Justin Singleton, a young man just nine years into his life sentence, plays the Disciple Peter, who famously denied Christ three time before affirming his love for him.
“To actually be something that portrays change is awesome,” says Singleton on screen. Later, he tells another inmate, “You don’t know who I used to be. If you did, you’d never put your hands on me. But I’m not who used to be.”
As a tale of redemption, Cast the First Stone is incredibly powerful. The inmates featured in the film are the ones that have found hope in a hopeless place, and they are a testament to Warden Cain’s belief in rehabilitation through the moral teachings of religion.
“The Drama Club is one of the carrots that the warden’s philosophy generates,” says Deniger. “The warden doesn’t care why you’re there. He doesn’t care what you did. None of that matters. All that matters is how you conduct your life once you’re there, and for those who exhibit a long term--I’m talking 10 or 15 years--of doing what they’re supposed to do, they can become ‘trustee’ status. Basically, in that status you pretty much have free reign anywhere on the prison.”
While the trustees remain under constant supervision, they have ample opportunities to participate in activities that get them out of their cells. In fact, for a prison documentary, the film shows very little interaction with guards or with other inmates outside of the Drama Club. Prisoners are rarely seen behind bars and only occasionally in cuffs. Instead, many scenes are filmed on the bucolic campus of Angola, beside a lake or in a wide-open recreation area, as the inmates rehearse their parts and chat openly about the parallels of sin and salvation in their own lives.
Deniger says that when the film was being edited, there was a conscious decision to avoid too many “prison-y scenes.” For him, those scenes distract for the film’s message of redemption, a message that he says is “clearly demonstrated in characters that just happen to be inmates.”
“We don’t show Camp J,” says Deniger. “Camp J at Angola prison, everybody’s in shackles because they have exhibited behaviors at the prison. If you continue to be a predator, if you continue to break the rules, then it’s not very good. I mean, it’s prison. It’s hardcore prison.”
Granted, not every prison documentary needs to tackle difficult issues of social justice or advocate for reform, but those issues are conspicuously absent from Cast the First Stone. Deniger says that those kinds of issues “just weren’t germane to the story,” but it’s also telling that Deniger and the film’s crew came to Angola at the invitation of Catherine Fontenot, the Assistant Warden of Programming at Angola. There’s no doubt that the film is a moving story about extraordinary people, but it’s also a film that avoids the hard questions. Still, Deniger believes Cast the First Stone might be a starting point for people interested in the hard questions.
“If the film helps people dig a little deeper into Angola, they’ll discover a lot of very, very interesting things. They’ll discover the sentencing laws in Louisiana are amazingly harsh. They’ll discover that the parole and the opportunities are almost non-existent. And what that has actually produced is this counter-intuitive thing. You’ve got a Gary Tyler who has been there for 40 years. Whether he’s innocent of his crime or not, that was 40 years ago. He has matured into a very spiritual man. So my hope is that people will continue to ask the question, which the film kind of raises, why are these people still in jail?”
“I don’t want to over glorify the prison itself, because it’s a horrible place,” says Deniger. “Nobody wants to be there. But I think our film does a good job of showing a little deeper, in a more layered way, what the potential is, and what is possible.”
Cast the First Stone screens Monday, October 20, 2014, 8:15 p.m. at the Contemporary Arts Center and Tuesday, October 21, 2014, 3:30 p.m. at the Prytania Theatre. For more info and tickets, visit the festival website, the Cast the First Stone website, or the Cast the First Stone Facebook page.
Brad Rhines writes in New Orleans. Follow him on Twitter.