These Walls: The Shawshank Redemption

Columbia Pictures

Wall Carving I: Get busy living or get busy dying

“In 1966, Andy Dufresne escaped from Shawshank Prison. All they found of him was a muddy set of prison clothes, a bar of soap, and an old rock-hammer damn near worn down to the nub. I remember thinking it would take a man 600 years to tunnel through the wall with it. Andy did it in less than 20.”

Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption is, among other things, a fairytale, and there is no real reason to suggest otherwise. Its depiction of wrongful accusation, the gruesome nature of prison, perseverance in the face of apparent hopelessness, and friendship forged through adversity has all the markings of a parable. Indeed, this moral quality, along with a memorable cast and sweeping score, is part of the reason it has been described as life-changing for its most ardent fans. A “religious experience,” as critic Mark Kermode noted.

But Frank Darabont prefers to characterize The Shawshank Redemption as a tall tale. The difference may seem negligible but tall tales, unlike their more fantastical counterparts, are really defined by their presentation. Namely, that the events in the story, no matter how unbelievable, are given as real and that the person relating it all was there to witness them. Technically, this is exactly what Shawshank is, part of a trend of similarly earnest (Forrest Gump), sentimental (The Sandlot), historically-steeped (Titanic) dramas from the 1990s that feature unlikely wistful narrators and detours into fantasy.

To me, its unrealities aren’t so easily dismissed. For one, it claims a tenuous relationship to the world at large. This is a world where, during the time of the film’s setting between 1948 and 1977, the national consensus regarding who did and didn’t belong in prison was far more explicit than is even cursorily shown. Just as well, the stoic, messianic nature of protagonist Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) belies an implicit suggestion as to the type of incarcerated person who is deserving of empathy. In Andy’s case, this is a well-educated, organized, desexualized, and selectively resourceful white man. His nature also belies the fairness of a supposedly democratic kind of justice that continues to be so perniciously withheld from even the most exemplary of prisoners. Because we know, really, that personal conduct is not the issue.

This is not a suggestion towards viewing Shawshank as a film fraudulent or malicious in its intentions. To me, it has that alchemical stop-scrolling-through-the-channels-to-finish-it quality that can, at the best of times, signal effective storytelling. But tales of hope that are described as crowd pleasers often succumb to an assumption of relatability that tends toward whiteness, no matter how supposedly universal their message.

Near the beginning of the film, Red (Morgan Freeman) recounts how Andy was routinely abused, both physically and sexually, by a group of men called the Sisters. In his description, he gets something very right. “I wish I could tell you that Andy fought the good fight and the Sisters let him be. I wish I could tell you that. But prison is no fairytale world.”

Wall Carving II: Pressure and time

Maine is not Ohio is not Nevada.

Yet their degrees of separation belie a progressively shrinking proximity to reality, from the pages of a book to the concrete walls of a cell. These are, respectively, the locations of the fictional Shawshank State Penitentiary, in the city of Portland; the site of Ohio State Reformatory, which stood in for the Penitentiary in the film; and my home state, where I spent a good chunk of my childhood running around the Henderson Police Department Jail.

The foreshortened Shawshank Redemption consistently ranks as one of the ‘90s’ most popular and enduring dramas. It also remains one of the first movies I can remember ever arousing in me an opinion to have on the subject of incarceration, to say nothing of false accusation. To say it had any truly disruptive effect on how I perceived the American criminal justice system or the people trapped within it would be false. It’s easy to overestimate the role pop culture can play in our encounters with systems of oppression, more so if you’ve grown up with people who have played a part in them.

One of Shawshank Redemption’s accomplishments was to present grounds for complicating some glaringly unexamined assumptions about what it means for a person, like a prisoner, to be deserving of empathy. Though, I strongly doubt this was a depth to which the filmmakers aspired or were even aware of.

If I’m being literal, these observations have their start in 1967, the same year as the Red Sox’s Impossible Dream season, the year Andy Dufresne broke through the sewage pipe behind the wall of his cell, the year my dad was born. For me personally, it starts in elementary school. More often than not, I was babysat by my aunt or uncle if my parents couldn’t pick me up. When that wasn’t the case, I was typically surrounded by cops.

Back when he used to work the graveyard shift as a corrections officer, my dad would take me to work with him, dropping me off at the correctional facility where my mom, a clerk for the municipal court upstairs, was just clocking out. Henderson was a world away to me, a dusty city on the opposite side of Las Vegas, where we lived. At that age, its size was always hard to discern. The jail was situated in the older, smaller part of town, up the incline of Water Street where shops always appeared empty or closed. But Henderson is Nevada’s second largest city and the scope of my dad’s occupation never revealed itself until much later.

I have strong sense memories of the Henderson Jail, and its attenuated courthouses. The break room with the squeaky floor where cops shoot the shit as they get ready to clock in. Storage rooms dormant with dust and discarded paper targets riddled with bullet holes or Taser darts. The humidity of the jail hallway near the kitchen where inmates passing by civilians have to stop and face the wall. I had little idea as to whether being there on the inside was a common experience for people, but part of me knew not to talk about it much at school.

It was, to my limited view, a massive and ugly place to be, but a clean and benign one, no stranger than a friend’s living room. A far cry, say, from Ohio State Reformatory, where The Shawshank Redemption was shot, where a class action lawsuit citing overcrowding and inhumane conditions that included disease, rats, and inedible food led to the prison’s shuttering in 1986.

I remember watching Shawshank for the first time, coming away thankful that places like those depicted in the film weren’t so brutal anymore, that structural ambivalence and systemic violence were safely relegated to the annals of esteemed cinematic memory. That initial feeling didn’t last long. It itched thinking that, if any character in the film was going to be, ostensibly, the most familiar to me, it would be Captain Hadley.

The guards in the film were embodiments of white masculine violence. My dad and his buddies were Black cops aware of their status in an overwhelmingly white system, determined to push back against its legacy of racism. At least, that’s what I wanted to think. The problem here is that racial diversity in law enforcement doesn’t diminish the harm that the prison-industrial complex enacts because it is a system greater than the sum of its parts. It is a power dynamic of wildly unequal proportions.

It also itched to think that, with the loosest of comparisons, those inmates who came to recognize me and know my name in the Henderson Jail could be people who were not only unjustly detained and abused by the authorities, like those in the film, but were part of a growing population that had been callously and casually treated as subhuman.

At Andy Dufresne’s sentencing, the judge says, “You strike me as an icy and remorseless man, Mr. Dufresne. It chills my blood just to look at you.”

To some, it would seem anachronistic to compare an early 20th century federal prison to a modern city jail. I will grant that the basic standards of surveillance, transparency, and hygiene in our American cells have shifted vastly in a more humane direction. But such concessions are hollow. They are made even more so in light of the reckonings concerning who we put in those cells, whether adults or children, by the ease with which we condemn inmates to rot away slowly; if not by direct physical force, then by a collective neglect.  

Wall Carving III: Hole in the wall

The staying power of The Shawshank Redemption is by turns fascinating and baffling. Movies set in prison (which, you’ll be pleased to know, are technically referred to as “prison movies”) were falling out of audience favor by September 1994, when Shawshank was released. Its poor box office performance has been speculated upon endlessly: A confusing title. An overlong runtime. Most likely, it was the stiff competition, with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s highest-grossing film, Timecop, in theaters.

Still, in time, the film managed to resonate slowly but gradually into the reaches of a modern classic. Its appeal is aided by a colorful cast of characters, staid acting, and a reliable cue of intriguing anecdotal plot developments. But Shawshank’s main legacy, and my frustration, resides with the friendship forged between Tim Robbins’ Andy Dufresne and Morgan Freeman’s Red. More specifically, the question of who is able to survive and, in Andy’s case, thrive behind bars.

Over the course of decades, Red watches as Andy’s seemingly unconquerable spirit makes miraculous inroads within the prison’s community. Extracurricular privileges are afforded Andy’s closest friends thanks to his financial savvy as a banker. The prison library expands and receives outside funding thanks to his incessant correspondence to charities, book clubs, and the government at large. There’s even a hint of admiration for him amongst the guards who regularly abuse and berate his fellow inmates. Andy is heaven sent and Red is there to witness all of it.

To me, the plausibility of the events in Shawshank aren’t in question. To take any of the broad generalizations about prison life, as told in the movie, for reality would be naive at best. What is in question is the veracity with which Andy is framed as an uncommonly good man, and how his goodness is what ultimately saves him. If his wrongful imprisonment weren’t already reason enough for the audience to empathize with him, there’s also his reserved nature and his curious mind. But these aren’t outstanding traits on their own. Andy is exceptional by comparison, exhibiting the qualities of a civilized man in an uncivilized environment. Specifically, a civilized white man.

Throughout the film, Andy’s fish-out-of-water sensibilities separate him from the uneducated and unfortunate mass of prisoners who populate Shawshank. He’s artistic, analytical, and, most importantly, brazen. He takes risks that not only threaten his well-being, but those of the people he comes to regard as friends. Take the famous rooftop scene, where Red recounts how Andy was able to negotiate leisure time with Captain Hadley in exchange for financial advice.

People tend to remember the conclusion to this ruse, where we see the dirtied gang lounging on a rooftop in the gilded morning hours enjoying refreshing cold bottles of beer. But in order to get there, first Andy has to approach a trio of armed officers while their backs are turned to him, without any attempt to gain their attention before he’s standing directly behind them. Red calls to him in a hushed voice, to no avail. For the audience, behavior that would normally instill apprehension instead triggers dramatic suspense. After all, this scene takes place near the beginning of the film. And Andy knows what he’s doing. He has valuable information to trade, information that will make Captain Hadley a richer man, information delivered by someone not all that different from himself.

The racial politics of The Shawshank Redemption are, at a stretch, a garbled mess. The mere existence of embodied difference is either hinted at or entirely ignored. Kermode refers to this as the film’s “admirable colourblindness.” Anyway, it is an impossible task, to me, for the film to suggest race plays no part in the lives of either the prisoners or the guards, to say nothing of the world at large.

Andy Dufresne’s generally harsh treatment by the warden and Captain Hadley throughout the film always confused me. By comparison, Red, an older Black man who also has a reputation within the prison as a smuggler, was never the target of any on screen violence, let alone any perceptible trace of racism beyond his continually delayed parole. I suspect this is due to the fact that Red was never intended to be Black. In the script, and in the original novella, Red is an Irish American man. Hence the scene where Andy asks about Red’s namesake and he responds with, “Maybe it’s because I’m Irish.” An innocuous enough line that also illustrates the filmmakers’ awareness of a racial component to the story.  

Part of Shawshank’s appeal lies with its fealty to an idealized image of prison formed in the collective imagination. Life, it posits, is a series of increasingly interesting and complex anecdotes that coalesce into a meaningful, revelatory whole. It is so linear, so additive that it can be narrated truthfully, rather than selectively. The people in prison are there, rightly or wrongly, because of their crimes and their character and nothing else.

In the novella, King describes this theme of an allegedly level playing field in the most careless of ways. He writes, “Black man, white man, red man, yellow man, in prison it doesn’t matter because we’ve got our own brand of equality. In prison every con’s a n—-r…”

Maybe he means that prisoners are racialized to such unfathomable degrees that the presumption of violence amongst different groups is almost tacitly encouraged by officers. That fits a narrative. But, in the context of the story, it doesn’t wash. Even with such racist language, there are nothing but white people in Shawshank.

No, I suspect King was going for something far less specific. I suspect that, just as Red watches on with amazement at Andy’s composure through years of hardship, the audience is meant to be similarly dumbfounded by an outrageous injustice: that these better (white) men were robbed of their dignity, of their civility, of their chance to feel like men, of their destinies. The only way for King to describe such theft, such emasculation, which has absolutely nothing to do with the experience of prison itself, was to make use of an epithet and generalize it. In prison, we are all the worst thing you could possibly be, a Black body. Unless you get out. Then it’s a different story.