It was anchored by Richard Linklater’s extraordinary “Hometown Prison” on HBO God save Texas It may only be a three-part anthology docuseries, but in these three parts, it manages to be wide-ranging, timely and vitally important.
While the inspiration comes from Lawrence Wright’s book of the same title, focusing on the Lone Star State, the model set by Linklater, Alex Stapleton, and Ileana Sosa can be applied to personal and political hybrid storytelling that delves into the fractured identities of all fifty states. And the artists who call home.
God save Texas
The Linklater doc is the best, but they’re all solid.
place: Sundance Film Festival (exhibitionist)
Offer date: Tuesday, February 27 and Wednesday, February 28 (HBO)
Managers: Richard Linklater, Alex Stapleton, and Ileana Sosa
Or maybe we just need more seasons God save Texas — premiering at Sundance before coming to HBO on February 27 and 28 — because Texas represents so much of what 21st-century America is likely to look like moving forward. A red state with blue cities, where the ideology and voting interests of each demographic group are far more complex than “Democrat” or “Republican,” Texas is fascinating, problematic, and fascinating in ways these three stories are only beginning to address.
Like many Sundance tales, it is a homecoming story, as Linklater returns for the first time since his mother’s memory to Huntsville, Texas. It’s a small town that was home to Sam Houston, where Linklater was a football and baseball star, and the site of countless flashbacks from his past and countless references in films like Dazed and confused And Everyone wants some!!
Huntsville is also home to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and, according to Linklater, is home to seven prisons, including the most widely used death penalty facilities in Texas, and thus in the United States.
Texas, Linklater explains, as an energetic and friendly presence on screen, leads the nation in prisons, prisons, prison growth, and executions. These factors have left an indelible mark on Huntsville and Linklater, though he admits that this is a piece of his DNA that he has never translated into a film before.
“Hometown Jail” is a sad, confused, and angry exploration of the death penalty in Texas. But because it’s a Richard Linklater film, it’s also full of heart, stories of shaggy dogs and quirky characters who, in this case, happen to be real. Linklater drives around Huntsville, often accompanied by Wright, sharing his own memories, interviewing people from his past and sitting down for in-depth conversations and raw, revealing stories from former prison guards, prison guards, and a woman who spent years in public relations for the prison system.
The director keeps himself at the forefront of the documentary, and his own connections to the place and the issue at hand are woven throughout the film. But it should come as no surprise that he’s a great listener, too. He easily frees his subjects from the burden of conflicting and nuanced feelings about a difficult subject in his presence. There are tears, but there is a lot of laughter too.
Linklater’s documentary will absorb a lot of attention around it God save Texas, which features Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw panels among its producers, was my favorite of the three parts, but Sousa’s “La Frontera” and Stapleton’s “The Price of Oil” are also very good. Both are under an hour, compared to the 87 minutes of “Hometown Prison,” “La Frontera” and “The Price of Oil,” which do a similarly strong job of blending elements of biography and inquisitive citizen journalism to present stories you might recognize on some level from a perspective. This is not common.
In “The Price of Oil,” Stapleton returns to Houston after 20 years as a “Texan in exile,” shooting documentaries around the world. With the help of her genealogist mother and family who still live in the dilapidated but vibrant community of Pleasantville, she traces the untold (or “untold”) story of the black experience in Texas, and ponders the reasons why people of color so frequently hated people of color. They were excluded from the wealth that came with the state’s oil boom.
It’s an examination of the communities on the fence line — neighborhoods directly adjacent to industrial facilities that generate high levels of pollution — and a Texas history that manages to combine black rodeos, sunset towns, and environmental racism in a way that is tragic but, like Linklater’s film, still dominates. It’s warm. As with anger.
Sosa’s film “La Frontera” uses the border cities of El Paso and Juarez to explain the mental state that cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa described as “nepantla,” the sense of being between two worlds. Starting with her parents, Sosa moves seamlessly between English and Spanish, speaking with people who live, work, and love between two cities that once existed more or less as a unified entity, but are now partly divided by a border wall, in a way. Tearing them both apart.
It is, once again, a story in which laughter plays a major role, but, especially when it addresses the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, the pain comes to the surface. It is, like The Price of Oil, a story about cultural erasure and narratives that history books often decide are inappropriate. Some of the details about the El Paso border shocked me, including memories of Zyklon B being used to decontaminate migrants crossing the border into the United States.
The thing that should be clear, even to right-wing Texans who are sure they’re right about progressive-minded docuseries attacking the state, is that all three stories are populated entirely by people who could have left Texas at any time. But that didn’t happen. Everyone in this documentary loves Texas and just wants to be a part of the Texas story as much as Ted Cruz and Greg Abbott and the people who voted for them. It’s a worthy project and I hope it continues beyond that.