Redeeming Shawshank, by Reed Lackey

12 Feb

I can still remember the first time I saw it. I was 16 and had the evening to myself at home. I worked at a local video store from which I could bring home free movies every night so long as I returned them the next day. That night the film was The Shawshank Redemption. And it absolutely blew me away.

Is there anybody left over the age of 25 who hasn’t seen that movie? Probably not. It’s rated number 1 on the favorite movies of all time on IMDB. I’m going to assume you’ve seen it. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and come back… We’ll wait…

Welcome back. So what’d you think? Greatest movie ever? Cheesy and overrated? Boring and overlong? Powerfully moving and affecting? Most satisfying ending in cinema history? Ridiculous popular claptrap?

What’s been interesting to examine regarding that film’s place in cinema history is how widely the pendulum has swung regarding its favor. In 1994 when it was originally released, it was largely ignored. A 2 ½ hour prison drama with a weird title starring two people who weren’t quite on the A-list just yet, especially in the same year that cinematic behemoths Pulp Fiction and Forrest Gump were also released? Most people took a hard pass on it. It’s worth mentioning that it was nominated for 7 Oscars, but also worth mentioning that it didn’t win any of them.

Fast forward to the late 90s and early 2000s. It was the golden age of home video releases. Blockbuster Video had its best years ever (because Netflix was only just getting started). And among some of the most talked about and recommended home video entries in existence was this Depression-Era prison drama about two friends whose unlikely friendship inspired people and made them cheer. It became (and remains, as of this writing) the #1 top-rated movie on IMDB by user votes. I couldn’t count the people who would cite it as one of their very favorite movies.

Fast forward to the late 2000s and 2010s. Cinematic landscape is changing. The optimism of the 80s is nearly non-existent. Anti-heroes were in resurgence and distrust in systems and organizations was at an all-time high. Films that maintained a sense of hope, or a happy ending that wasn’t sprinkled with abundant melancholy, were largely dismissed as sentimental hogwash and naïve populist pandering. And among most of my friends, one film in particular – you guessed it, The Shawshank Redemption – began to develop an almost negative reputation as being criminally overrated (or, at best, merely “ok”). It steadily went from being included in the top ten of film lists across most mainstream publications to barely making the list at all.

Whatever your personal feelings about the film are, I find this broader trend fascinating, primarily because the only constant in those waves of popular opinion is the film itself. There hasn’t been a director’s cut or extended edition released to force a re-evaluation of the film’s intrinsic value. I love following popular opinions of this movie in particular because of how widely those opinions have swayed in such a brief period of time.

And perhaps you’re one of those individuals, like me, whose opinion of the film has never really changed. Either you loved it and still do or weren’t that impressed and still aren’t. Personally, I love it. Always have. And I find it to be more and more unique the further current trends in storytelling progress. I’d like to offer up three brief observations about this film and how it likely never would be made the same way in the current cinematic climate (which makes me quite sad).

It portrays racial equity with utter normalcy and without attention.

Race relationships in our country are as strained and tense as they’ve likely ever been. While certain definitive strides have been made (not the least of which being the election of our first Black President), the increasingly aggressive displays of tension surrounding law enforcement, economic inequality, and disparities in the justice system have brought the gap between the races into more and more prominent display. One of the most discussed films of 2017, Get Out, directly tackled many of the difficult issues facing the African-American community and was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Picture.

But in The Shawshank Redemption, we see on display an interracial friendship which is literally never highlighted throughout the narrative. Aside from one brief joke (wherein Morgan Freeman claims he’s named “Red” because he’s Irish) the difference between the two protagonist’s race is not only never an issue, it’s never mentioned. They are treated as purely and utterly equal, granted within the confines of a maximum security prison, but their friendship and status within that insulated community seems to be utterly unaffected by the difference in their skin color.

I can’t help but feel that if the film were made today, that difference might have become a centralized talking point. There might have been a hierarchy addressed within the prison, or a discussion about the trends of white and black incarceration percentages, or perhaps even a multitude of racial epithets hurled at Red by one of the guards. But the film treats both men with dignity and with affection, sending them both on a simultaneous (albeit individualized) journey of self-discovery and liberation.

While the increasingly vital conversation about race relations continues in both independent and mainstream films, The Shawshank Redemption reveals itself to be strangely subversive precisely by not drawing attention to the conversation, and instead presenting two friends, for whom race is organically irrelevant, and regarding each of them with respect and dignity.

It displays an intimate and mature friendship without sexuality or violence.

There appears to be a trend in cinematic storytelling that the only conceivable way to portray an intimate friendship between two men is if they’re at war, on a sports team together, or dodging some variety bullets and explosions. It is so painfully rare to see a dramatic story depicting little more than the mature, intimate friendship of two men. It’s not wholly unique: certain foreign films have a decent collection of entries to offer. But American cinema doesn’t seem to quite know how to display men developing a loving and cherished friendship without either making it competitive, violent, or sexual.

There have been a wealth of buddy cop movies, buddy army movies, buddy war movies, and – much more prominent now – buddy lover movies. And at the risk of being offensively dismissive, it appears that the majority of cinematic storytellers aren’t sure why two men would be in an intimate friendship with one another unless they were fighting some common opponent or unless they were gay.

But with Red and Andy, we witness a truly rare kind of story: adult men connecting as people and as friends, growing to genuinely love each other, but without even a hint of romantic affection or the need for some outside threat over which they may unite and bond. It is true that their incarcerated condition permits their prolonged connection to each other, but it in no way necessitates their particular relationship. And what is friendship but two people in common stations or conditions of life coming to know and trust and love each other?

I want to be very clear here: this observation is in no way a critique of the LGBTQ community or its presence in popular culture. But it strikes me as highly unlikely, were The Shawshank Redemption to be made today, that the subject of sexuality would be absent from the friendship of Red and Andy. As we become more sensitive, aware, and normalized of the presence of LGBTQ persons in culture and society, there appears to me to be an ever-growing suspicion that if two men form a deeply intimate bond, there must be some variety of sexual attraction on one or both of their parts. However, I have never held the belief that intimacy requires sexuality to thrive and I find it refreshing to see a story of two men who become lifelong friends without the necessity of a sexualized component.

It dares to have an unqualified happy ending.

If you’ve made it this far without ever having seen The Shawshank Redemption, then the largest of all possible spoilers is imminent…

In today’s climate, The Shawshank Redemption would have become a cautionary tale about the corruption of the prison system, or a back-door commentary on racial injustice, or – at the very least – a bleak and heavy tragedy about the unfair odds stacked against men of hope and courage. Either Red or Andy (or maybe both) would not have survived the picture, let alone be reunited on the shores of the Pacific Ocean wherein they are likely to live out the remainder of their days in peace and joy, survivors of hope who have weathered the sewers of life and time.

It is precisely this joyous ending, in which all of the bad guys receive their comeuppance and our primary good guys live happily ever after, which is frequently criticized for its saccharine naivety. How could things possibly have concluded so neatly, so tidy, so satisfyingly pandering? Such endings are built for children’s stories and fairy tales, and as Red directly states early in the film, “prison is no fairy-tale world.”

The film has the audacity to pull you into the depths, dragging you down with the burden of Andy’s unjust incarceration and the continued corruption within the system that kept him there. It’s nearly inconceivable that the story would permit you the satisfaction of seeing him make it out, let alone see the villains crumble like a house of cards, and even lesser still that Red would come to join him in the sunlight.

One of my favorite moments in the film is near the end, when Red finds himself in the same living room as his old fellow inmate Brooks (who the film showed us had hung himself rather than try to deal with civilian life). Brooks, before hanging himself, had etched the words “Brooks was here” on the beam beneath the ceiling: a feeble and heartbreaking suicide note. When Red breaks his parole and leaves to go find Andy, Red also etches some words in that same beam: the equally simple declaration, “So was Red.” It is a moving and powerful display of one of the film’s central messages… “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.”

But by giving us the ending that it does and putting on display the undiluted boldness of hope, it subconsciously pushes us in one of those directions. It could easily be a film which grieves the troubles of this world, but instead it tries to make us cheer by showing us that the other side exists and that it is possible to reach it.

I’m not certain where popular opinion will reside concerning The Shawshank Redemption in the coming years. It’s likely to be a film that continually swings back and forth in critical and popular opinion. But I will always regard it as a rare treasure indeed – a film about life for those who are trapped beyond their will or their blame, the friends that they make while there, and the possibility of a path outside of that trap. I hope it continues to encourage generations of film lovers to come.

I hope.

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