DETROIT — Tirtza Even’s experimental documentary film Natural Life, currently playing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, explores the stories of five adults who were sentenced to life without parole in Michigan for crimes they committed as minors. The US is the only country in the world that sentences children to life without parole, also known as “natural life,” for crimes they committed before they could quit school, drive, or vote.
More than 100 of the juveniles sentenced to natural life in the state of Michigan did not commit homicide themselves, but were convicted for taking orders from adult co-defendants or acting as lookouts, as is the case for three of the subjects in Even’s film. Kevin M. Boyd gave his mother the keys to his father’s apartment. Always used as a pawn in his parents’ tumultuous relationship, he was used to hearing his parents threaten each other. Barbara P. Hernandez was coerced into helping her boyfriend steal a car, which she thought would help take her far away from her physically and sexually abusive father. Jennifer M. Pruitt ran away from her abusive home and the older friend with whom she was staying suddenly and repeatedly stabbed an elderly neighbor while they were robbing him. All three of these prisoners had no idea murder was going to take place during these wrongdoings.
Even tells these stories through reenactments, recorded phone calls with the inmates, and interviews with their families, victims of their crimes, police officers, lawyers who worked on their cases, civil rights attorneys, juvenile justice experts, community members, and Donald Logan. Logan was sentenced to life without parole at age 17 but the governor of Michigan pardoned his sentence when he was 55. Shots of him looking out the window, fidgeting, and reading from a dictionary all give an eerie sense of someone who still feels trapped, perhaps a result of entering adulthood in adult prison.
Like any good storyteller, Even seems to know that there is never just one side to a story, and that there is an exception to every rule. This is clear in her contextualizing of the inmates’ stories with legal facts — Natural Life‘s most difficult crime, Matthew Scott Bentley’s 1997 home invasion and first-degree murder at age 14, is presented first — and the installation that accompanies the film, designed by Ivan A. Martinez. The exhibition starts on the far right side of a long wall, spreading to the left with two graphs that illustrate the age and race of juvenile natural lifers (below) and five concrete casts of standard-issue bedding presented atop a row of steel pedestals. The projection spans the corner at the left end of the wall, echoing the split-screen format of the narrative. The installation divides the two halves of the film onto the two connecting walls, while a thick black border frames the projection. The corner installation, manipulation of black and white on the gallery’s walls, V-shaped viewing bench, and lighting all force viewers’ eyes forward.
As I watched Natural Life, there was never anything in my periphery but the film — the rest of the installation was behind me, and so it became very three-dimensional, very real. It also made it very hard to turn away when the film became too difficult, like when Hernandez’s sisters recall crying and hoping to be rescued from their abusive father whenever an airplane would fly over their childhood home, or when Pruitt’s brothers wiped tears from their faces while talking about how their sister was raped by prison guards while also dealing with untreated PTSD from the murder. Even if in those instances my natural instinct was to look away, I couldn’t because some related footage was playing in the only other place my eyes could go.
Between the interviews, Natural Life features a series of long takes breaking up the heavy content and the interviews. They also act as metaphors for the injustices of the juvenile justice system: a fawn running away from the camera on one side of the screen while a young inmate lies in his bed on the other. Another juxtaposition underlines the fact that the young black boys playing in a neighborhood on the left side of the screen do not have the same experiences of childhood as the young white boys playing on the right.
The images of boys playing leads up to the case of Efren Paredes, Jr., who was convicted of armed robbery and murder at age 15 even though he was allegedly home at the time of the incident. According to Paredes’s high school teacher the press wrongfully made him out to be a “troubled teen,” and another source said that he “embraced the white community.” One juvenile justice expert interviewed by Even explains that in the 1980s and ‘90s there was a shift toward demonizing teenagers, depicting them as remorseless, and that the language became very color-coded. According to State Department of Corrections data for 2011–12, 1,409 out of Michigan’s 2,319 natural lifers are black. Through her film’s combination of statistics, interviews, and long takes, and the physical space of the installation, Even allows viewers a break if they need it, but they certainly are not allowed to forget.
After I left the film I thought a lot about timing. How, in 2014, hits like Serial and How To Get Away With Murder explored the potential (and extreme) manipulation of stories within court and have called what we considered “fair trials” into question. I was reminded of This American Life‘s interview with Mike Anderson, another story that illustrates how important rehabilitation should be within the justice system. I remembered the recently released Straight Outta Compton trailer, in which Ice Cube says: “The same thing that we was going through in the ’80s with the police, people going through right now.” These injustices are not new issues in the US, but for those whose lives they don’t always directly affect, popular culture can shed light on such problems.
Art can seem so tangential to the process of social activism motivating real political change, but Natural Life transcends that. The third part of the project will be a web-based archive and interactive exhibition, to be completed by May, breaking the stagnant time barrier of activist art or the duration of an exhibition in a gallery or museum, which can make issues feel just as temporary. What Natural Life shows is that truth cannot be proved solely through process and facts, and that these stories — like the lives they chronicle — don’t just end when the film does.