Most of us know that the prison system is nothing more than modern-day slavery. Originally designed to rehabilitate offenders and reintroduce them to society, prisons have become perpetually closed doors for their inhabitants. Tyrese Gibson and Terrence Howard seek to open people’s eyes about the reality of some of these prisons in their new film: The System. The film is written and directed by Howard University alum Dallas Jackson. The System works to break down an institution built on Black bodies. Excellent casting supports the goal.
As The System opens we follow former Marine Terry Savage (Tyrese Gibson) as he robs a trap house. Unfortunately, he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he exits with his ill-gotten gains he runs right into the police, guns up and ready. When he’s brought in, he’s led to the police commissioner himself. Commissioner Clarke (Ric Reitz) wants to cut him a deal. Terry will do a bit of a time in a pretty terrible prison and reports back any human rights violations. In exchange he is free to go, time served.
The deal is appealing to Terry for a significant reason. He has a young daughter, DJ (Bella-Rose Love), who is in the hospital with serious blood clots. In fact, the cost of her treatment is what drove him to robbing drug lords in the first place. Terry (and DJ) have been abandoned by one system (the military and country he served) and he’s now being forced into another. In an effort to get back to his daughter as quickly as possible, Terry takes Clarke’s deal. It turns out to be shockingly easy to find human rights violations in the prison.
In fact, they are myriad. Jeremy Piven’s Warden Lucas has created an underground, multi-prison fight club. Inmates are forced to beat each other, sometimes to death in an attempt to “earn their freedom”. These fights are narrated by “The Joker”- portrayed by Atlanta rapper Lil Yatchy in his feature film debut. The only way for Terry to get what he needs to go free is to join the fight club. Here enters Bones (Terrance Howard). Bones is older and wiser and provides Terry with the tools he needs to be successful. He’s quick to make it to the top of the pyramid, but things only get worse from there.
It turns out Commissioner Clarke is in on the whole thing. He has no intention of letting Terry go now that he knows the truth. The premise of the film may seem far-fetched (and also pretty common-there are lots of underground fight club films based in prison now), but The System has something extra. Filmed in an active prison (Rankin County Prison) in Jackson, MS-with real prisoners, real guards and a real warden, there’s an authenticity to this film that others can’t duplicate. There is a rawness to Tyrese’s performance, which I believe can be attributed at least in part to their setting. Something else that I’m sure helps is another, personal connection. As a father himself, I’m sure Tyrese could relate to a parent’s desperation to save their child at all costs.
The film itself has a short run time as compared to most films now. It’s only an hour and a half, but it manages to pack a lot in. This works in some ways-for example, there are so many fights scenes in this film that it’s hard not to get the message-the prison system-especially private prisons-operate as slave farms. Prisoners toil endlessly (or in this case fight) for the promise of a release that will not come.
In other ways that short run time is detrimental. The end of the film felt rushed for me. With only about 15 minutes left in the run time we had the big reveal that Commissioner Clarke was in on it the whole time. That left only about 12 minutes to get Terry out of prison, the human rights violations handled and the Warden and Commissioner dealt with. I would have loved to spend a bit more time with the shock of Clarke being behind the whole scheme before jumping right to a solution.
The performances from Gibson and Howard were excellent. Howard especially brings a “wise beyond his years” feel to Bones (originally slated to be played by an older character). He’s in prison for murder, there’s no exit for him, and yet he trains several younger men (not just Terry) to help them potentially escape his own fate. Bones is smooth, doesn’t raise his voice, but brings an energy that you can’t help but pay attention to. He’s like your older, bachelor uncle who made mistakes and doesn’t want you to repeat them.
Gibson’s Savage is tired and rundown, clearly feeling the weight of abandonment from the government he served, the responsibility to a child he fathered, and the overall hopelessness of an uphill battle. It’s clear that he doesn’t actually see a permanent solution to his problem. His arrest was a foregone conclusion, the only question was how long would it take to come to fruition. Despite the hopelessness that is woven throughout the film, it ends on what one might consider a high note. The Warden and the Commissioner are arrested (in a relatively humorous “end credits” scene, we see Piven struggle to come to terms with his new reality). Terry is reunited with his daughter, whose medical bills have been taken care of, and is now working to free Bones (and another inmate) from prison.
The film might not be for everyone, but I would encourage Black viewers to visit a theater this weekend (or wait for the digital release on November 4th!). The film is meant for us and shines a telling, if abbreviated, light on what America’s prison industrial system is doing to its largely Black and Brown inmates.
The System is in theaters nationwide now and will release on select digital platform on November 4th, 2022.
For more from Aprille’, check out her review of Andor here.