Civil Brand

on August 29, 2003 by Susan Green
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The well-intentioned but fatally unsubtle "Civil Brand" is an earnest exposé of the potential for corruption in women's prisons that have been privatized--a nationwide trend in the incarceration industry. Free from public scrutiny, brutality seemingly generates fewer consequences in this instance than it would at a government-run facility. The mostly African-American inmates are doing the time for doing the crime, which is often the killing of abusive husbands or boyfriends. The fictitious Whitehead Correctional Institute, a grim maximum-security facility, subjects them to economic, psychological and sexual exploitation.

The chicks-in-chains genre, as such movies are sometimes collectively labeled, can be traced as far back as the rather polite "Ladies They Talk About" in 1933. "Civil Brand" director Neema Barnette, who won an Emmy for an episode of "The Cosby Show," chooses to focus on contemporary issues facing feisty females behind bars. Forced to work as seamstresses on contractual projects for an outside commercial clothing manufacturer, they consider themselves "slave labor" in a place dubbed "the plantation." Such gallows humor is scant, of course, when sadistic guards prey on them at will. But the streetwise jailhouse rockers--played by N'Bushe Wright, LisaRaye, Lark Voorhies, Da Brat and Monica Calhoun--have been weaned on hip-hop. Accordingly, the unspoken mantra is "fight the power."

Prison officials are either blatantly evil or driven by the profit motive. Rapper/actor Mos Def, acclaimed for previous roles on stage and screen, is strangely soporific as the only sympathetic employee. Perhaps he's confused by the film's fuzzy plot details and disorienting sense of time. Wright ("Blade") stands out, however, as an accomplice to armed robbery whose heart has hardened in the slammer. Lark Voorhies, appearing as a pregnant teenager with a gift for preaching the Gospel, is another gem in this muckraking mess of a movie. Starring N'Bushe Wright, LisaRaye, Mos Def, Lark Voorhies, Da Brat, Monica Calhoun, Tichina Arnold, Clifton Powell, MC Lyte, Robert Archer Lynn and Reed R. McCants. Directed by Neema Barnette. Written by Preston A. Whitmore II and Joyce Renee Lewis. Produced by Neema Barnette and Carl Pedragal. A Lions Gate release. Drama. Rated R for violence including a rape, and for pervasive strong language. Running time: 90 min

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