Written and Directed: Cheryl Dunye
Let's face it - there aren't too many lesbian films around for women of colour, and this probably wasn't the most ideal subject for changing that situation. However, Cheryl Dunye has become well known for her independent films and documentaries dealing with women, and lesbians, of colour, with features such as The Watermelon Woman and short docu-narratives like She Don't Fade. While recognising that the state of affairs for coloured women in lesbian film is abysmal, let's look at Cheryl Dunye's important achievement here for what it is, rather than what it isn't.
Stranger Inside is a powerful portrayal of a life being lived inside a system that the vast majority of us can only begin to imagine. Young women, some of whom have been incarcerated the entire of their adult lives, live and breathe inside the warped world of the prison system. They build bonds, cultivate relationships, form family groups, and of course, make enemies. There is a whole other society behind bars with a whole different set of rules.
The point best made by Dunye in Stranger Inside was that despite the fact that these women are hidden away, those basic needs that affect us all don't stop applying just because they're in jail. They crave love and acceptance, family and friendship. They look tough and act tough, but underneath the difference between "us" and "them" isn't so great.
Treasure Lee (Yolanda Ross, in her film debut), can't really remember a time when she wasn't in jail. She's done her time in juvenile and now she's being moved up to the State Facility for Women. But Treasure has a secret desire. She has been told that her mother, a woman named Brownie, died when she was young. When Treasure learns that State is lorded over by a lifer named Brownie, she begins to hope. What if what she heard was wrong, what if this Brownie is her mother?
Once Treasure arrives at State we meet a cruel array of characters, the myriad of women who surround her in the hellhole that she has landed in. They range from the guilty to the innocent, from women who killed for pleasure, for revenge, for self defence. Women who'll kill now for fun, and women just trying to do their time quietly and peacefully. There are drug dealers, white supremicists, junkies and twinks. The best that Treasure can hope for is that she can find her own footing, find a place within the spiderwebs of artifical family structures and caste systems that rule this alien society.
Treasure's reunion with Brownie and the relationship that they build is a complex one. You can't say that anything in the environment these women are in can be considered a "happy" ending, but Treasure finds a kind of contentment and security in the relationship that she's never had before, that is until she realises that Brownie sees her more as another gang member whose loyalty she enjoys than as a daughter. Brownie is nothing but a businesswoman in a restricted and aggressive marketplace. You exploit any advantage or you go down.
Sexuality is treated simply in the film, without too much exploitation and fanfare. It's used as another way in which women escape reality, or bond with one another, or as another weapon to try to control each other. After all, you need every skill you've ever learned, in prison or on the streets, to survive inside. If you're lucky you find people you can count on, women with an integrity that they cling to even in a nasty, dirty world.
Stranger Inside is a claustrophobic, harrowing experience that is held up on the shoulders of some enormously talented, unknown actresses. Only Rain Phoenix has a famous name, and she delivers the kind of performance you'd expect from someone in such a talented family.
Dunye spent four years researching this study of women's prison life. In many ways I felt like I was watching a documentary, so thorough was the production design and so gritty was the acting. Once again HBO have hit upon subject matter that is revealing and socially vital. We must examine what purpose incarceration really serves in our society. Is it really that much better than dropping these women on a deserted island with knives and letting them fight it out until only the fittest survives? How can we call ourselves civilised if we allow this to happen?
But Dunye tries to find the humanity in it all and only undermines her efforts by wearing her politics firmly on her metaphorical sleeve. Despite being a bit on the preachy side, Dunye's point is well made; this is an evil, self-perpetuating system where daughters follow their mothers into the life and nobody on the outside seems to give a damn about changing anything. This is not the clean world of Orange Is the New Black. This is reality.