How The Shawshank Redemption Humanizes Prisoners
YouTube channel Pop Culture Detective has a strong track record of looking at television shows and films through a lens that is simultaneously sociological and ideological. Their videos on offensive audiovisual tropes in particular are much needed reminders of how seemingly simple storylines, innocuous jokes or clichéd characters can in fact be harmful representations that validate and perpetuate real-life misconduct.
In this particular video, write and producer Jonathan McIntosh revisits a modern classic, The Shawshank Redemption. In his trademark fashion, he examines the ways in which this film handles the representation of certain groups (the prisoners first and foremost, but also men, racial minorities and homosexuals). Emphasis is placed, as is often the case in Pop Culture Detective videos, on representations of masculinity. McIntosh makes a great case for Darabont’s movie by clearly illustrating how the depiction of convicts in this film differs from the vilifying of inmates we’re more used to seeing in Hollywood fare. The video essay expands its analysis by placing the film within the wider sociopolitical framework of its era, referring to relevant legislative efforts of the time. In doing so, this piece turns into an insightful and thought-provoking critique of the shortcomings of the American penal system.
In all film and tv criticism, the critic chooses a position on a gliding scale between the extremes of immanent and transcendent critique. Immanent criticism judges a film by its own standards: what does it aim to achieve and does it succeed? Transcendent critique imposes other, external standards: the critic holds up the film against her or his own norms and principles (and those can be of various nature, from aesthetic to ethical, from personal to ideological). The critical stance of McIntosh is firmly rooted in such transcendent criticism, and this video essay is no exception. This kind of transcendent criticism is not just valid but even indispensable in our times: we should judge films by other standards than only the ones they explicitly set for themselves if we feel they (unwittingly) influence the world or our perception of it in harmful ways.
But how far should one take this? That question pops to mind when this video essay discusses “where the movie starts getting into trouble”. For example, McIntosh faults the film for not explicitly (enough) addressing race issues, and for depicting the lead character as the “strong silent archetype” who does not show outward signs of trauma. Now, these are indeed important aspects. Aspects that all responsible filmmakers should take into account. But while he’s weighing this movie’s representational merits and missteps, it almost feels as if McIntosh is ticking off items on his watchlist. Valid as transcendent criticism is, can one go too far? Is it okay to completely disregard a film’s artistic and storytelling ambitions, instead asking it to be a brochure on half a dozen systemic injustices? Because ironically, by asking every character in the movie to be free of representational slipups and to be the poster boy for a series of (legitimate) social concerns, McIntosh runs the risk of… dehumanizing those characters.