Introduction Tracy Metz to Roger Ross Williams

The political and the personal meet in ‘American Jail’

Welcome to the John Adams Institute. My name is Tracy Metz, I am the director of the John Adams which – as many of you know – is an independent not-for-profit foundation that brings the best and the brightest of American thinking to the Netherlands. Under ‘thinking’ we also understand ‘doing’ and ‘making’, in this case filmmaking.

We are honored not only to present the movie ‘American Jail’, but also to have the director, Roger Ross Williams here with us this evening, in collaboration with Submarine, the Dutch multimedia agency which is also the producer of the film.

Roger is the first African American director to win an Academy Award. That was in 2010, for his film Music by Prudence. His documentary God Loves Uganda was shortlisted in 2014 for an Academy Award, and his heartwarming documentary Life: Animated was too. This week he won three- yes, three! – Emmys for Life: Animated. Congratulations!

How many of you have done time in jail? Probably not many, if any.

For Roger, growing up in Easton, Pennsylvania, that was different. Everyone he knew, at least the men, spent a large part of their lives in jail. After his boyhood friend Tommy committed suicide, Roger went back to his hometown to try to unravel the system that has so many people, so many black men, in its inexorable grip. As one inmate says: ,,It only takes one mistake and you’re caught in the system”.

The statistics in the movie are mindboggling.

  • There are 2 and a half million people in jail in the US, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Of the people who are released, 75% are arrested again within 5 years, , and often go back to jail.
  • The US spends 265 billion a year on prisons.
  • Young black men have a chance of 1 in 3 that they will at some point be incarcerated. 14% of the US population is black, but 50% of the jail population is black. And blacks get longer sentences than whites for similar crimes.
  • Prisons are a lucrative industry, as we see when Roger visits the trade fair of the American Jail association – I’ll resist the temptation to do a spoiler on this, but I can assure you, it is a bizarre episode.

But actually, the statistics are only one part of the story in American Jail. The other part is the personal pilgrimage that the director goes on, and its effect on him. It is that intertwining of the political and the personal that makes this film so powerful. You’ll see for yourself.