Jennifer Siebel Newsom returned to San Quentin State Prison this August. Siebel Newsom previously entered San Quentin two years ago, with cameras and microphones, as she was there to film a group of prisoners for her documentary, The Mask You Live In.
At the invitation of Insight Prison Project, Siebel Newsom came back to screen the finished product for an eager audience that consisted of outside guests and prisoners of San Quentin, the “Men in Blue.”
Newsom wrote, directed and produced the film, which “follows boys and men as they struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America's narrow definition of masculinity.” Experts in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, sports, education, and media are also interviewed and provide empirical evidence of the negative consequences of gender stereotypes and how increased hyper-masculinity is impacting society at large.
Insight Prison Project’s Executive Director, Billie Mizell, opened the evening and took the opportunity to honor IPP's “small but mighty” staff, dedicated and invaluable volunteers, longtime supporters (many of whom were in the room), and the Men in Blue who dedicate hours each week to the hard work of Restorative Justice and personal transformation. Also in attendance was the filmmaker’s husband, Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, as well as District Attorney George Gascon and his wife Fabiola. Members of San Francisco’s Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also joined, and Shaun Kozolchyk of the ADL was thanked as having been instrumental in organizing the unique experience.
The prisoners in attendance were members of various IPP programs, including the Victim Offender Education Group (VOEG), Acting with Compassion and Truth (ACT), and KidCAT (a group of men given life sentences as teenagers who are now committed to Creating Awareness Together). Mizell then invited “the tireless advocate and movement builder” Jennifer Seibel Newsom to the stage to introduce her film. Seibel Newsom said that the spark for her latest documentary came as she was traveling the world with her first film, the highly acclaimed Miss Representation, which explores how American media has contributed to the under-representation and exploitation of women.
“As I traveled with Miss Representation, I heard the same question over and over again, ‘But what about our boys? Isn’t there a boy crisis going on? And, how can we help our boys be part of the solution instead of the problem?’” Siebel Newsom said. Having just given birth to her first son, the filmmaker was inspired to dig deeper for answers.
The film screening at San Quentin was followed by a Q&A panel that was moderated by Mizell, and included Siebel Newsom and several of San Quentin’s prisoners. Each Man in Blue stood and introduced himself, named his crime, and stated how long he had been incarcerated and how old he was when he came to prison. All of the panelists had arrived at prison before they were old enough to legally buy a beer—one had been incarcerated since he was 14 years old. Most of the men had been in prison longer than they had lived outside the walls; The longest serving prisoner on the panel was in his 41st year of imprisonment.
The audience was buzzing with thoughtful questions. The panelists did not hold back with their answers. One man talked about how he had allowed his mask to become a cocoon, covering himself in tattoos that told the world he was not a tolerant person. But through his participation and hard work in the programs that IPP makes possible, he transformed into a man who thoughtfully works side by side with his fellow prisoners, including those who are transgender and/or of a different race.
The panelists uniformly agreed that the film spoke the story of their lives—that, in fact, the same culturally indoctrinated characteristics explored in the film were those that the men had felt beholden to when they committed their crimes. Quite a few were drawn to personally thank Siebel Newsom for making the film and giving a voice to the struggles of young men in America. After the panel, one man said that the film was very hard to watch because it really hit home, and then he added, “There are over two million men in American prisons. They were all little boys once. I hope all the young men out there see this movie and have the courage to take off that mask.”
One visitor, who had seen the film before, said that it took on a whole new meaning, and a whole new importance, after viewing it inside a state prison, surrounded by incarcerated Men in Blue.
Everyone seemed to agree it was a special and thought-provoking experience. Many said that they wished all prisoners could watch The Mask You Live In. Before leaving San Quentin, Jennifer Siebel Newsom gave the prison permission to show the film again so that every Man in Blue at San Quentin would have an opportunity to see it.