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Freedom Road

Distributed by Women Make Movies, 462 Broadway, New York, NY 10013; 212-925-0606
Produced by Lorna Ann Johnson
Directed by Lorna Ann Johnson
VHS, color and b&
Criminal Justice, Women's Studies, Writing

Reviewed by Janis Tyhurst, Reference Librarian, George Fox University

Date Entered: 7/14/2005

Freedom Road is a documentary that I really want to like. The idea of women redeeming their lives through education is powerfully attractive, more so since the women portrayed in the documentary have not had many opportunities to improve their lives. Ironically, being in prison gave them the time and freedom from daily pressures to focus on improving their education. The women are held in the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility in New Jersey. According to the EMCF website, the majority of inmates are in for drug related crimes. The type of crime that put these women in prison, with one exception (vehicular manslaughter), is indirectly alluded to only when portions of a journal are read, but the allusion is to a violent crime.

The strengths of the film are the interviews given by various individuals - the women prisoners, the professors that teach them, the university students that aided the professors, the family members on the outside of the prison. Through the interviews, the story of the project “Woman is the Word” is told. The inmates talk about the learning process they went through when they joined in the project, which included reading autobiographies by Harriet Ann Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) and Audre Lorde (The Cancer Journals). By journaling their own responses to the readings and discussion groups, they feel that they were able to start accepting responsibility for their choices and with that acceptance came a greater sense of self control. They talk about how reading the autobiographies of other women who managed to survive desperate situations, often similar to what they experienced, helped them to realize that although they may not have control of the situation, they could choose how to react to it.

The weakness of the film is that it jumps between inmates, educators and family members. It was difficult to understand one of the women inmates when she did her interview. Each interview tries to make a statement about the effects of prison, the oppression of women (especially black women), the impact of having a family member locked up and the difference the educational project is making. While all the points are worthy, they seem disconnected, diluting the impact of all the points.

If you have a women’s studies program or a criminal justice program, it may be of interest.