Prison Films in the 90s and 00s: The Corpus

Imagining Incarceration: The Prison Genre in Film & Television, 1990-2010, Prospectus Flier
Imagining Incarceration: The Prison Genre in Film & Television, 1990-2010, Prospectus Flier

This is the first of what will (hopefully) be a series  of regular blog posts about my dissertation project (and other scholarly activities). To put it briefly, my project seeks to understand the prison genre in commercial film, documentary film, and television in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. You can learn a bit more about the project, its goals, and inner workings on the about page on this site, so I won’t expand on the larger project in this post. Instead, I want to explore what is traditionally an extremely important aspect of any project dealing with genre: the generic corpus. Or, for those of you not familiar with genre studies in literature or film, the body of work that my study will investigate. What are the films I will be looking at? What gets included and excluded and why?

Genre scholars in film studies have spent the better part of the last 40 years exploring these questions. My approach is informed most by Rick Altman’s book Film/Genre and his 1984 Cinema Journal essay on the “Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.” However, because Altman’s work is easily accessible, and you didn’t come here to read about him, I’ll punt on the overview of the scholarly literature on genre.

But, scholarship on prison films is much more difficult to find and rarely written by film scholars. In the scholarly literature on prison films, debates about and anxiety over the constitution of the generic corpus are common, but they rarely employ the methodologies proposed by Altman, Tom Schatz, or Steve Neale. Indeed, it seems that much of the work of scholars like Mike Nellis, Derral Cheatwood, Nicole Rafter, David Wilson, and Sean O’Sullivan wrestles with how to define the generic corpus. Can we define the prison film genre at all? Do films about military prisons, women’s prisons, and chain gangs “count?” Should we define the genre by its mis en scene? Its themes? Its narrative tropes? Can we include a film like The Defiant Ones (1958) in the same genre as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang! (1932) and The Big House (1930)? These are all questions worth arguing over, and ones that I am facing as I watch films this summer. What “counts” as a prison film? How does it fit into the genre?

Movie Posters for The Defiant Ones (1958), The Big House (1930).
Movie Posters for The Defiant Ones (1958), The Big House (1930).

I say all of this in order to emphasize that defining a corpus is a crucial part of studying genre in film and media studies. Further, it is important for those hoping to answer more social-scientific questions about how prison films inform (or misinform) audiences about the realities of prison life and administration. The composition of the corpus is, in essence, the heart of the matter. If I were to write this dissertation and leave out an important film—like say, The Shawshank Redemption—would I really be able to make convincing arguments about how prison films in the 1990s reflected and influenced popular ideas about justice and punishment in America? I think not.

So, I spent the better part of a few weeks combing through IMDB, fan sites (like prisonmovies.net), and Robert Parish’s prison filmography putting together a list of EVERYTHING that I could find that could be considered a prison film between 1990 and 2010. My criteria were pretty flexible, but I generally tried to stick to films that seemed to take place primarily in prison or focus on prisoners, and were released in the United States.

You can find this first list, in Google doc form, here.

What do I do with this list?

My work with prison films will not be my entire dissertation, so I will not even try to watch 190 prison films, some of which never saw a movie theater or a significant audience in the United States (and some of which may not “count,” for a variety of reasons to be determined). So, I decided to limit my corpus to films that were released theatrically in the US. With the help of boxofficemojo.com, I halved this enormous list from 190 down to 89. While I see that as a victory in and of itself, after watching films for nearly two weeks now, I am already crossing things off this shorter list. For now, I’ll call this the corpus, and I’ll whittle away at it as I watch and talk about what made the cut at a later date.

Can you think of anything that I left out? Do you have any qualms with what is included? Does it matter if I am hoping to talk about how media reflect and influence ideas about justice and punishment in the US whether or not the films in my corpus meet certain criteria? My next post will delve into the details of these theatrical releases, their producers, distributors, and box office success.

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