HBO's The Sentence Is an Eloquent Study of the Justice System's Effect on One American Family

TV Reviews The Sentence
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HBO's <i>The Sentence</i> Is an Eloquent Study of the Justice System's Effect on One American Family

With The Sentence, you know you’re not watching an Alex Gibney film. Elements of it are amateurish; it’s artistically sometimes a bit crude. But there is a kind of eloquence even in that, since you know that director Rudy Valdez is cutting his teeth as a documentarian on the tearjerker case of his own sister, Cindy, who served many years in prison on a mandatory-minimum-sentence “conspiracy” conviction (her boyfriend started dealing drugs and, being young and in love, she didn’t turn him in). The film tracks Cindy’s three daughters and her husband—and, to a lesser but significant extent, her parents and siblings—through the agonies of growing up with an incarcerated mother, and through them we get a very needful window into an especially swollen, idiotic, brainless side of the criminal justice system. We also see a valuable portrait of a human being enduring that system with a kind of emotional generosity that would be beaten out of many in her situation.

While it does take on the rather absurd mandatory sentencing guidelines that make it impossible for a judge to consider the difference between a harmless mother of three who once dated an idiot, and an actual perpetrator of violence, what this film is largely about is absence. Three girls are growing up without their mother for no good reason. Decent parents are growing older without a daughter they love. A husband struggles to parent three daughters on his own. (The marriage doesn’t survive, though we never see Cindy say anything to him but that she’s grateful she didn’t have to worry her children were in serious danger while she was locked up—in fact, throughout the film the relative tenacity of women versus men is striking and prompts a lot of questions about gender and resiliency). Also absent: Discernment by law enforcement and justice. Common sense. The resources to do anything to change a destructive, needlessly traumatizing system. This is a sad, sad story, and the kicker is, it’s one of the happier ones. Of 36,000 incarcerated people who qualified for clemency during the last year of the Obama administration because they were serving extremely bloated sentences for non-violent drug offenses—including “conspirators” like Cindy—she was one of only 1,600 inmates whose pardon was actually processed. And she comes across as someone with a particularly, perhaps uniquely, buoyant and determined personality, the kind of person who has a prayer of moving on from losing her marriage and missing her daughters’ childhoods over crimes committed by an old boyfriend. One wonders, and the film chooses to leave these statistics absent as well, what the outcomes were for the other 1,599 people who were granted clemency that year.

A documentarian whose focus was corruption in the criminal justice system might have produced a quite different (and completely enraging) film about its many failures. This is not that film. It’s an intimate, small-scale portrait of how a profoundly unintelligent policy impacted one family. It’s painful to watch, in part because it retains a seriously big heart in the face of a situation that would embitter most people, and one can easily see why it took the Audience Award at Sundance. What started out as a brother’s attempt to document the lives of his nieces for their absent mother ends up becoming a powerful example of the ripple effect of a bad policy decision. And its ellipses have a strange and perhaps in some cases accidental profundity: Absence can be the largest-looming presence imaginable.

The Sentence premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.

Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.