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Shawshank Redemption: A Leftist Critique

Updated on November 12, 2011

The film, Shawshank Redemption portrays a idyllic multicultural fantasy. The film portrays American prison life between 1946 to 1966 as un-segregated and devoid of racial tension. In reality, for instance, in the National Geographic television show Lockdown which depicts racial segregation as one of the defining features of the American penal system. Of course, in fiction, liberties are taken against truth to shape the narrative of a story for the sake of the betterment of the story or to take an extremely unlikely set of events and make them plausible to the viewer. If Shawshank Redemption depicted a segregated prison the characters in which the film depicts in solitary would have been eradicated near instantaneously by the violent racially based culture norms inherent and reinforced by the prison apparatus.

The fundamental myth in Shawshank Redemption is the myth portrayed in prison diversity itself. Midway through the film there is an aerial shot of the prison yard. What is strange about this shot is its depicture of non-segregated racial diversity. Prisoners framed in the scene are depicted like a scatter plot with no correlation, in other words visual diversity par excellence. This phantasmagorical veil is depicted though out the film in the background of every shot. The only place where diversity is not present in the film is in the Prison Guards who all have the pigmentation and mannerism of middle class European-Americans.

The assumption Shawshank Redemption makes about prisoners is consistent racial diversity in all facets of prisoner life. It is extremely difficult detach the fantasy totalized by Shawshank Redemption and focus on a specific character (or group) the myths, stereotypes, and assumptions that they make throughout the film, because the logic of the film itself displaces any characters (or group of characters) in myths, stereotypes, and assumptions, in other word to talk about conversation between Red and Andy during the film screening of Gilda where they both express solitary in their sexualizing of Rita Hayworth is to talk about a myth inside of a myth. In the multiculturalist utopian myth presented in Shawshank Redemption Red's expression of interracial sexuality appears as plausible within the logic of utopian myth.

Unlike racial diversity, socioeconomic class and education antagonism are presented in the film as antagonistic. Andy is a well educated upper middle class white European American who is incarcerated in functionally staffed, and functionally populated. A prison devoid of the stressors that undermine the contemporary prison system; understaffed and underpopulated. Andy possesses a cultural capital which is a product conditions by socioeconomic playing field he was educated in, this cultural capital puts Andy in a unique position in the film. Andy is embodiment of the fantasy American dream; not too rich, not too smart, but just enough to rise and overcome unjust obstacles which are put in his path.

The relationship turned friendship between Red and Andy initiates upon the binary of old and new. Red in the position of the prisoner who has proved/earned his place into the institutional hierarchy. Gradually a friendship develops based Andy transition into prison culture where Andy adapts his banker cognitive map to simultaneously earn the respect of the prisons and prison guards. Class antagonism, or rather the cultural capital disparity in education is distinctly made clear when Andy takes a position in the prison library teaching other prisoners how to read and pass high school equivalency test. In the conversation between Andy and Tommy, Andy challenges Tommy's motivation, and determination to earn his high school equivalency. Andy's challenge could be considered a stereotype he has about younger illiterate men and how they feel about education. The characters in the film were depicted in universalized solitary (excluding the group called "the sisters") to the harsh "reality" of prison. Prisoners expressed diversity by avoiding the expression of specific cultural identities and identifying with prison culture.

Socioeconomic diversity expressed through educational disparity is depicted by Andy expressing an idea or concept which is unfamiliar to the Prison guards who do not know the tax law, or in Andy's explanation to Red about what a rock hammer is or stones. Rock collection is a hobby which requires an intellectual base in geology and a socioeconomic status which allows leisure activities, and access to the tools and resources in which the hobby develops itself.

"The sisters" who rape Andy throughout the film are described by Red as not homosexual because they are inhuman obfuscates to an indescribable state. The term "the sisters" also serves to feminize homosexuality, and on the other hand to feminize the inhuman. What was not allowed into the discourse of the film was description of a homosexual prison who felt he was expressing what he felt as his sexuality. Bogs after attempting to court Andy early in the film states, "hard to get, I like that". Red's interpretation leaves no room for Bogs to self determine his own sexual identity. Red's comment about the inhumanity of "the sisters" forecloses their human-masculinity and replaces it with a inhumane-femininity.

My personal reaction to Shawshank Redemption was frustration, while telling an interesting story with extremely likeable characters and narrative, the film depicts a multiculturalism utopia that finds no basis in reality of the time period being represented. At the time we watched the film in class, I was watching National Geographic's Lockdown. The juxtaposition between the two universes is terrifying. Why were all the prisoners getting along so well? Why did the prison exist in complete integration between 1946 to 1966 when it want till 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed. To me Shawshank redemption plays a very suspect game that a lot of 90's film historical time pieces play; historical revisionism.

As a social worker it's important to maintain a sharp difference between the very likeable fictitious narratives popular culture creates, and the historical reality of events. Is there something positive to be taken from Shawshank Redemption's multicultrualist utopia? Yes, the utopian ideal as such. The hope of prison racial integration. An integration which may lead to a prison in which human solitary towards self improvement and reintegration into society at large without the systemic recidivation statics of the contemporary correctional system.

In an episode of Lockdown in an overpopulated prison uses an old gym to house prisoners, when new prisoners arrive the prison administrators allocates that prisoner by color to a section of the prison with other prisoners of the same color. Systemically this reinforces the segregation already in play and enforced by prisoners themselves. The obvious argument against this is that if administration of a prison placed a African-American male in the cell with a white supremacist one of the prisoner's is not going to survived the night.

What is needed is a utopian rethinking of the prison system. How do we create prison culture where prisoner segregation, and racial justified violence due to segregation is made less likely?

The universe found Shawshank Redemption is a universe in which the concept of multiculturalism qua tolerance of the racial "other" is made unnecessary, because in Shawshank Redemption there is no racial other-ing there are only convicts who find their critical consciousness in the oppression of prison life, a corrupted legal system, and abusive prison guards.

Because I am identified by society as a white European American male my engagements with prisoners maybe polarized around racial lines. My personal ethical values are diametrically opposed to the racial coded mores and norms in prison culture, as a social worker I need to keep in mind that a clients right to self determination. Also, as a Social Work I must understand that that there is a great divide that separates my understanding of prison culture, and how the prison understands their culture.


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