Inspired by four years of research into the lives of female prisoners and featuring real inmates as part of the cast, out director and screenwriter Cheryl Dunye’s Stranger Inside is a realistic and compelling film about women behind bars.
Dunye previously directed the award-winning The Watermelon Woman, another film that focused on the contemporary, day-to-day experiences of an African-American lesbian.
When Stranger Inside premiered on HBO in 2001, there were few big-screen depictions of lesbians in prison that did not fall into the exploitation genre. Since then, the subject largely is still limited to fantasy (as in 2003’s Prison-a-Go-Go), although mens’ prison experiences have been featured more seriously on television on HBO’s Oz and Fox’s Prison Break.
Thus, Stranger Inside continues to be one of the few instances in which the American women’s prison system is portrayed on the big screen in a non-exploitative manner. (The British television series Bad Girls, which has been on the air since 1999, features several lesbian characters in the British penitentiary system.)
While Dunye was artist in residence at the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis, she was given access to the Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility, where she made the connections with inmates that help to make Stranger Inside so authentic. Besides having actual inmates tell their own stories during group therapy scenes, Dunye includes prison blues music dating from the 1930s and 1940s in the film, which gives a haunting timelessness to the women’s experiences.
The film centers around Treasure Lee (Yolonda Ross in an impressive feature film debut), who dreams of being transferred from the juvenile detention center to the state women’s facility after finding out that her mother, whom she has never met and believed to be dead, is alive and serving a life sentence.
Tough and disillusioned, it is clear that Treasure is no stranger to life in jail; however, her vulnerability and yearning for a mother become apparent when she tells a guard the reason she stabbed another inmate was to secure transfer to the women’s facility on her 21st birthday. While talking to the same guard about her transfer, she says, “I’m going home.”
From the moment she enters the women’s facility, Treasure sets out to win her mother’s respect and attention and refuses to accept anything less than the close mother-daughter relationship she has always dreamed of. In her desperation to secure this relationship, her actions begin to defy logic as she denies all evidence that the fairy tale future she desires with her mother, Brownie (Davenia McFadden), is not likely to occur.
The group therapy scenes are among the most provocative and revealing of the film. They set up an ironic juxtaposition between two mothers who regret being separated from their children because they are incarcerated and Treasure, who has come to the jail intentionally to seek the family she never had.
Brownie has created a “family” of her own within the prison walls, complete with wife and daughters, one of whom is Kit (Rain Phoenix, sister of River and Joaquin). Treasure fights with Kit when Sugar (earlier identified as the “Gang Girls’ doorknob — everybody gets a turn”) snubs Kit for Treasure.
In a typical example of the way lesbian relationships are portrayed in this film, Treasure has sex with Sugar twice in the prison’s church, but the two rarely interact outside this context. Although lesbian relationships are treated as commonplace, familial ties are the film’s main focus and, as a consequence, romantic relationships — lesbian or otherwise — show no development or depth and serve as little more than a background to prison life.
Impressed by Treasure’s willingness to fight Kit, Brownie invites her to join the “family.” Treasure is quick to assert her position as being special; unlike Brownie’s other daughters, she is Brownie’s “real blood.” However, it is not long before Treasure realizes that, “real blood” or not, Brownie’s affection comes with a price. Being a part of the “family” means doing the dirty work necessary to maintain the control Brownie has established over the prison with the help of a corrupt correctional officer.
As things go from bad to worse between Brownie and Kit, Treasure will have to decide how far she is willing to go to secure her mother’s love, as well as question whose interests Brownie really has at heart. Stranger Inside possesses some elements of a classic coming-of-age story, in which Treasure must find the courage within herself to step out on her own and resist the forces that have ruled her life up until this point.
However, a twist in the plot provides a surprise ending to this film, which manages to remain entertaining while providing an inside and honest look at the criminal justice system and the broken families it leaves behind.