Film

The Mind of Mark DeFriest Is a Powerful Indictment of the Prison System

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A chilling, timely, often darkly and unexpectedly humorous look at one man’s brutal experiences in the American prison system, the documentary The Mind of Mark DeFriest is the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” writ large.

If it were a Hollywood fiction, the film would strain credulity at almost every turn. (Don’t be surprised if it’s one day turned into an Oscar-bait biopic.) After his father dies, nineteen-year-old DeFriest — ignorant about the terms of probate — goes to the family home to retrieve the valuable work tools bequeathed him in the elder man’s will.

His stepmother calls the cops, setting into motion a years-long trek through the justice system that includes several impressive jailbreaks that embarrassed the powers that be and tacked decades onto his original four-year sentence. At the time of the documentary’s filming, DeFriest was looking at a March 2085 parole date.

Along with artfully detailed animation to reenact past escapades, and prison interviews with DeFriest, the film introduces his friends and family, including his first wife, who divorced him a short while into his prison sentence, and his second, who married him while he was behind bars and didn’t meet him in person until after the wedding had been officiated.

What could have been an impossibly bleak viewing is actually made more unnerving through DeFriest’s droll humor and acceptance of his fate — rather than being Zen-like, he’s prickly and dark, with such dazzlingly high native intelligence that you mourn for potential needlessly wasted.

When DeFriest unblinkingly lays bare the intense violence (emotional and sexual) he’s endured, the film enters the realm of horror and becomes a powerful indictment of the prison system.

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