The Will to Speak Up: Men, Prison, and the Patriarchy
“Men who are whole can speak their fear without shame.” — bell hooks
The reality of prison is that, all too often, your survival depends on how tough you are; rarely is it a space where the patriarchy is challenged. The Feminist on Cellblock Y, a documentary directed by filmmaker Contessa Gayles, presents a different image of incarceration: an environment where anti-patriarchy conversations are had, and welcomed. The film focuses on Richard Vargas, a community organizer and former prison inmate, who creates a new kind of space for the inmates of one California state prison—and room for them to discuss the concept of masculinity and what it truly means to be a man. We spoke to Contessa about her experience in bringing the film to life.
Brittany Washington: When you first learned about the program, what were your initial expectations?
Contessa Gayles: The documentary’s producer, CNN Row Editor Emma Lacey-Bordeaux, had gone out to the prison to see the Success Stories group that Richie [Richard Edmond Vargas] co-founded—all before we partnered to do any filming. After seeing one of these workshops in person, she knew it needed to be captured on camera, and that’s when we teamed up. The idea of it — men in prison deconstructing the system of patriarchy and confronting their own toxic masculinity — seemed pretty incredible and almost unbelievable. This was also my first experience inside any kind of correctional facility, so there were a lot of firsts. I did not expect to witness and capture the level of deep, thorough, nuanced, emotional discussions that we did because, frankly, I had never witnessed that type of work happening in this type of structured way among men even outside of prison.
BW: How difficult was the process of getting access to film inside the prison?
CG: Emma put in the initial legwork; she had already been to the facility in person with her reporter’s notebook before I came with a camera, and she did the relationship building with the prison management and the members of the Success Stories group. Richie was also someone she had interviewed for her college radio show when he was a high school student, before he was in prison. When she found out where he was incarcerated and reached out to him, she was reestablishing a connection she had made years before. I think what also helped was that we were an intentionally small crew — the two of us, plus a sound recordist, Eric Day. On shoots, it was just myself and Eric. This definitely allowed us access into some of the more intimate spaces, like the guys’ cells, and helped to deepen the immersive experience I was aiming for.
BW: What was the reception to these workshops within the wider institution? Do you know of any impact they had on the prison as a whole?
CG: The anti-patriarchy workshops were a part of the curriculum of [the Success Stories] group program. At the time of our filming, the group was at capacity with over 60 men participating in sessions twice weekly for about 12- to 14-week seasons. Since Richie co-founded the group in 2014 with Charles Berry—a fellow inmate who was released before we started filming in 2017—the participant numbers grew over time. Richie mentions in the film that his co-facilitators deserve a lot of credit for their active recruiting efforts on the prison yard and for not being afraid to go up to random guys, including active gang members, and tell them to come join the group.
And, the documentary itself has apparently had an impact on increasing interest at the prison. After an internal screening for the members of Success Stories, I heard from one of our subjects (James, or “88”) that the yard was buzzing about it and that, due to demand, more screenings for the wider prison population would be taking place. That was pretty exciting to hear.
BW: Richie is such an effective communicator, and the contribution he made to Soledad is inspiring. Now that he’s out, is he continuing this work?
CG: Well, Richie’s been out for a few weeks now, and he’s already posting on social media about ways in which he’s being tested to continue to hold himself accountable and practice what he preaches. He’s currently fundraising to launch his own “social impact record label,” called “Question ¿ Culture,” focusing on the intersection of social justice movement-building and art. And, he’s been signed onto a professional speakers bureau.
Emma and I have heard from other folks who are looking to spread this elsewhere, too. We’ve heard about other prisons having screening events with our documentary, which is pretty exciting. Same goes for the outside: we’ve heard from educators, folks from social impact and social justice organizations, and others who are using the film as a resource and building workshops and group discussions around it.
BW: I wonder if the Success Stories program flourished by the constrained nature of prison, and if it could be as effectively implemented elsewhere.
CG: There’s certainly a built-in structure that comes with the confines of the prison setting. At the same time, prison is also a place where physical aggression and violence are a form of currency, and so, in that sense, it’s not the setting where you’d expect men to feel encouraged or safe to challenge patriarchal norms.
Yes, I think, beyond the education piece, the success of this type of culture-shifting work comes down to the systems of accountability that are in place, not only on an individual level, but on a societal level. The impact of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements is an obvious example of that. But the issue of sexual harassment and violence is bigger than individual bad actors. It’s about the collective culture that has allowed for this type of abuse of power to thrive in the first place and go, for so long, unchecked.
BW: Why was it important to tell a bit of Richie’s wife’s story? In terms of editing, I noticed your choice of her placement as well, directly after the point made about the men inside being supported by women during a discussion about rape culture.
CG: Thanks for noticing that structural choice! Yes, I wanted the audience to feel fully immersed in the day-in and day-out worlds of these guys in prison before taking us out of prison for a moment to recognize that there are people — primarily women — supporting this work happening on the inside from the outside. In addition to Taina, there are the women of the Los Angeles–based organization Dignity and Power Now (including its founder, Patrisse Cullors) who have provided mentorship, resources, and given workshops to the Success Stories group over the years. We focused on Taina, an organizer in her own right, because of her important role in informing Richie’s work. But also because of her relationship to the prison, where I wanted all of the storytelling to take place in a really immersive way. She physically took us out of prison only briefly before leading us right back into prison, by way of her weekly visits with her husband.
BW: Were you already familiar with bell hooks, whose writing plays a large role in the film?
CG: Yes, I started reading bell hooks in my mid-20's. My introduction to her work was All About Love, which is one of the texts Richie, Roy, and others in the group also read. And, I read the bell hooks texts used in the Success Stories curriculum — The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love and We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity — in preparation for the making of this doc. The text of hers that impacted me the most personally was Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism. It heightened my level of awareness of how different systems of oppression work in confluence in our society, and it influenced my desire to examine those intersections in my work from that moment on.
BW: Tell us about your journey into visual storytelling and documentary.
CG: I started with a college radio talk show and writing for the undergraduate news blog at Columbia University. After graduating, I dabbled in oral history research, communications in the nonprofit sector, and music journalism before going to grad school at NYU Journalism for documentary film. I was very lucky to get my training in documentary, storytelling, and reporting from some incredible educators and award-winning industry vets including Kirsten Johnson, Marcia Rock, Jason Samuels, Aviva Slesin, and Cora Daniels. My student-produced PBS NewsHour feature on gender parity efforts in the Senegalese government was awarded the 2015 National Mark of Excellence Award by the Society of Professional Journalists, and my NYU education culminated with a screening of my thesis documentary, School of Yoga, at the 2015 NYC DOC film festival. I started at CNN as an intern while working on my master’s and worked my way to producer. I spent four years there producing, directing, shooting, and editing original digital series, documentaries, and multimedia interactives, including Women Who March, Women Who March: The Movement, This Is Birth with Lisa Ling, This Is Sex with Lisa Ling, Unstereotyped, and the Emmy-nominated Feeding America’s Most Vulnerable Children. The Feminist on Cellblock Y was the last project I released at CNN, and I have since left the company to pursue documentary projects as an independent filmmaker under my production company, Cocomotion Pictures.
BW: You write that you’re committed to telling stories at the intersection of identity and social change. Tell me more.
CG: The personal is always political, so identity is inextricably at the core of any story to do with cultural and social change. In documenting the process of social change, organizing and movement making will always be a place to find important, impactful expressions of identity in action. That said, storytelling can expose, educate, and empower. I focus my storytelling on people from historically and currently underrepresented groups and communities, because good storytelling plays an important role in correcting the imbalance and inequities in representation that exist in our current media landscape. And media representation matters. It can influence everything from what a child believes is possible for their future, to the collective sense of self-worth of a systematically marginalized and oppressed group, to policy making at the highest levels of government. So, at the heart of my work, I try to pay close attention to how people from historically underrepresented and commonly misrepresented groups can have their stories told and their identities portrayed with more depth, nuance, context, and authenticity.
BW: What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve been given?
CG: It went something like this: Get a seat at the table, collect your receipts, make some noise working at the table, and then make your own table.