Movie Review – Free CeCe (Portland Film Festival)
This documentary references and patterns itself after the recent doc Free Angela and All Political Prisoners (2013), which was about Angela Davis. The subject of this movie is in many ways this generation’s Angela Davis, or the Angela Davis of the LGBT community. The subject here has taken up the same issue as Davis, that of prisoner rights and reform of the prison industrial complex. The subject here is clearly African-American as Davis is. The subject here was sent to jail as Davis was, and even put into solitary confinement as Davis was. The subject here is also a woman as Davis is. The difference is that when Davis was arrested, she was put in a Women’s Detention Center, whereas the subject here was instead put in a Men’s Detention Center.
CeCe McDonald is transgendered. In June 2011, she was attacked in an apparent hate crime outside Schooner Tavern in Minneapolis. Three people accosted CeCe and her friends. One physically assaulted her. A fight broke out. A second person physically engaged her. That second person was Dean Schmitz who later died from a stab wound from a pair of scissors that CeCe had pulled out to defend herself. She was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. She was sentenced to 41 months. She ended up serving 19 in prison.
LGBT activists started a campaign to make sure she was treated fairly and eventually released. Actress Laverne Cox who plays a transgender, black woman in prison heard about the campaign and decided to join it. In fact, Cox is the one leading this documentary. She conducts the interviews with the activists, as well as those involved with CeCe’s prosecution. In 2013, Cox even went to prison to visit CeCe.
It’s through these interviews, archival material from police and some animation that director Jacqueline Gares is able to recreate the horrifying night that changed CeCe’s life. It’s by far the most emotionally powerful part of this movie. It leads to a brief indictment of the criminal justice system and its unfairness in certain situations. In light of recent TV programs like Netflix’s Making a Murderer or even HBO’s The Night Of, this indictment is nothing new, but the transgender angle is particularly important here.
Gares or Cox never go into it, but there is a comparison to be made to the Trayvon Martin case, which came in the wake of this one, but got far more national headlines. The comparison goes to laws regarding self-defense. This movie does go into the legal requirements for self-defense in Minnesota, and apparently it’s a higher bar than in Florida where the Trayvon Martin case happened.
After CeCe is released, she does public speaking on the issues she faced while locked up, the transphobia and the subsequent or de facto misogyny. She also speaks about post-prison opportunities or lack thereof for inmates, but ironically Cox’s TV series Orange is the New Black does a better job of conveying all this stuff in a far more, entertaining way. However, it’s good to hear from a real case.
CeCe also mentions prison abolition, which is something that Michael Moore’s recent film Where to Invade Next also pushed, but gave way more information about it. Here, CeCe has it as just a talking point. There’s an interesting scene where CeCe visits Alcatraz or rather she goes to where people are gathering in San Francisco to take a tour of Alcatraz. She seems shocked that a prison has become a tourist destination that people would want to visit.
She asks or wonders what’s going through their heads that they would want to visit a prison. She’s within earshot of these tourists, but, at no point does she or the filmmaker simply go up to them and ask. It seems like a wasted opportunity. The fact of the matter is that prisons have become museums. Eastern State Penitentiary in my hometown of Philadelphia is now a museum and is also a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
Auschwitz, the infamous, Nazi concentration camp, is now a museum and is listed as a U.N. World Heritage Site. As horrible as these places are, they stand in memory for people to learn. Some people might take the wrong things from it, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with making it a museum and having people visit it. I feel like CeCe could have benefited from speaking to someone from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which oversees Alcatraz. Nevertheless, she has every justification to feel the way that she does, and it’s good that she’s sharing her story.
Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but has recreations of violence and bloody photos and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 26 mins.