Thursday 9 July 2020


Directed by Phil Collins (the visual artist, not the Genesis drummer/singer) the title Bring Down The Walls refers to a civic space set up in 2018 in New York City that in daylight hours brought people together to question the current state of the American prison industrial complex, before turning into a club playing house music at night times. At Bring Down The Walls, their argument was that reform is not effective enough and therefore abolition is the only answer to the problems of harsh sentencing and a rapidly expanding prison population (currently over 2 million) that is disproportionately made up of young men of colour.

There's a lot of weighty, increasingly topical statements made across the course of the film by a number of speakers talking from their own experiences. In first hand accounts from ex-prisoners guilty of petty misdemeanours, serious crimes, and in one case innocent and exonerated after spending more than half his life behind bars, they talk about the sentences handed down to them and how the system is rigged against them due to their economic or social background. Added to this, parole boards are choosing to add years to someone's sentence without the need for a judge, jury or even a lawyer present to act on their behalf. The film also covers the fact that although slavery may be illegal, by definition it isn't if you are incarcerated. Prisoners may get paid 10 cents an hour for their work (there's pushback from one speaker as he argues against this being called a job), but the fact that arrest rates for young black men are so disproportionately high, particularly in some areas of the country, makes a compelling argument that the system has managed to work against its black citizens to revert back to darker times in America's history.

The film skips between these speeches, delivered almost always to a crowd of young, socially aware people who can relate via similar experiences that have befallen members of their families, to scenes of the nightlife aspect of the space and performances from some of the previous speakers who have found a way to process their prison experiences into music. At one point in the film Collins goes as far as to include what amounts to a music video that doesn't seem to bear any relevance to any of the speakers, but one would assume does to the BDTW space and the people that frequented it. 

As an argument for the need for inclusive civic spaces, open to all to share their experiences, it's a convincing one. As a document of a club night with house music playing to a rapturous crowd and vogue balls (judged by FKA Twigs) attended by mostly black, queer youth, it sure looks like a fun place to be. But much like the dual uses the space has, the film is a bit scattershot, like stream of consciousness documentary filmmaking. Director Phil Collins was a key player in the creation of the space and this filmed document does deliver its message, with compellingly put forward arguments. A choice has been made to not include any explanatory inter-titles, and with minimal voice-over we are forced to listen to ascertain the important details, like one of the assembled audiences. Never notably at odds with the joyous frivolity of the house club scenes, this is a bold, humanistic film asking for change in one of America's most contentious institutions. There are voices that deserve to be heard, and Collins' film gives them a platform with style.


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