How hard could it be to go straight after spending years in prison? Is it really that difficult to rebuild your life, reconnect with family and friends, and stay out of trouble? A Hard Straight—a riveting new documentary by first-time filmmaker Goro Toshima, screening at the Urbanworld Film Festival August 5 and 7—grapples with these questions by chronicling the lives of three people who left prison in Northern California in early 2001.
There’s Regina Allen, 44, mother of three and longtime speed addict, who’s been to prison twice, for forging checks and receiving stolen property; Aaron Shepard, 39, who spent two years in prison for robbery, then did almost twice as much time for violating parole; and Richard “Smiley” Martinez, 32, a talented artist who served seven and a half years for kidnapping and robbery, the last stretch in solitary confinement.
In many ways, Smiley is the movie’s most compelling character. A veteran gang member from San Fernando, he is the most serious criminal of the three. He’s also the most insightful. Toshima wins his trust, and throughout the film, he talks to Toshima’s camera as if it’s his psychiatrist. “I’ve been in the hole for a year and a half,” he says, soon after his release. “I haven’t seen TV or radio. I don’t even know how to talk on the phone. Just being around people . . . ”
Smiley doesn’t finish the thought, but his initial discomfort around other people is evident. This is the legacy of going straight from solitary confinement to the street. Unlike the others, he spent his last 18 months locked alone in a prison cell around the clock, deprived of human contact. After receiving a welcome-home hug from a female friend, he says, “For me, that hug was . . . like the first hug I ever got in my life.”
Toshima’s camera follows Smiley as he reunites with an old girlfriend, drinks beers with fellow gang members, flouts parole’s 8 p.m. curfew, finds his first-ever legitimate job (in an auto body shop), and pursues his dream of being a tattoo artist. His intelligence is apparent, but as his frustrations grow, it’s easy to imagine he might end up back in prison. He leaves his girlfriend because he feels confined by her; he loses his job; he gets evicted.
Toshima, a 34-year-old Stanford film program alum, began researching this project in 2000, prompted by media reports that the U.S. prison population exceeded 2 million. The three homecoming stories he documents are even more timely now; U.S. prisons will release a record 650,000 people this year. Within three years, 40 percent will be back in prison. Academics, politicians, and government officials have long struggled with the question of why. Toshima, who shadowed his subjects for two years, has created an honest and intimate film packed with much needed answers.