The movie What I Want My Words to Do to You is a documentary about a writing program in a women's prison (Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, New York) run by the playwright Eve Ensler (The Vagina Monologues). The program started with Eve Ensler helping the women to write about themselves, and ended with a group of actors including Glen Close, Rosie Perez, Marisa Tomei, Hazelle Goodman and Mary Alice reading the inmates' work.
The format of the movie was this: a scene of Eve Ensler sitting with a group of the inmates as they tackle a single writing exercise such as "Pick a question that you have never answered and answer it." Then one of the inmates would be shown reading her piece, and others would comment on it. Then the scene would cut to the actors assembled in somebody's living room going over the readings. Cut back to the inmates, and end each section with the actor reading that inmate's piece. At the end of the film, all the inmates are assembled in one room to hear the actors give their performance.
The Good: The inmates are all articulate and engaged in the process. There were some displays of women taking clear ownership of what they had done to be in prison and trying to get beyond it. Their writing ranged from entertaining to profoundly moving.
All the inmates featured were also working at the prison in all sorts of jobs. One woman helped train guide dogs for the blind. Two worked in the parenting center, teaching women how to be better parents once on the outside. I found it heartbreaking that they would never be able to get comparably skilled jobs outside for the sole reason that they learned their skills in prison. It seemed a waste.
The Bad: Eve Ensler was exactly the sort of person who should forever be linked in people's minds to the word "vagina." She used the word "empower" in a sentence with no irony whatsoever. She told women whose raw, inexpressible rage led them to commit murder to "go deeper." She supportively laid her hand on everybody's arms. At the beginning she gave a monologue that just left me feeling embarrassed for her.
Because the production didn't show the women before the class, there was no way for the viewer to measure any personal growth other than what the women themselves reported. One of the women in the film was Pam Smart who said at the end of the film that she was serving life without the possibility of parole for accessory to murder. I ended up pausing the film to read up on her, and as I watched her, it didn't seem as though she had learned anything at all. She still seemed angry that she was put in jail for something that she didn't do only in the sense that she didn't pull the trigger herself. By the end of the film, she was surly and defiant.
The Ugly: Every scene of the actors sitting in sweats with no makeup deconstructing the inmates' work was laughable. At one point, Glen Close is asked whether she could relate to a young black prostitute who killed her 71-year-old john after a lifetime of abuse and drug use. She said "My actor's mind can feel the physicality of it." What the hell does that mean? Showing the stupid poncey actors deconstructing work that is wildly out of their intellectual and emotional depth bordered on offensive. If the readings given had illuminated some further nuances of the works, I could have forgiven being subjected to the process, but every single one of these women was a proud graduate of the William Shatner School of Acting, although none of them apparently took the Self Deprecation Seminar.
I'm wishing and hoping that either Steve Martin or Ian Frazier can do the next writing program in prison.
And if I've offended any stupid poncey actors...well, that would be a miracle because it would mean that you actually read the entire piece instead of just scanning for your name and closing it up when you didn't find it.