The fact that Bradley Beesley’s Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo is something of a festival darling here in Oklahoma City is not a surprise by any measure. It is a rock solid documentary not only with local interest, but it is rousing people to bring about change, sort of.
The film follows female inmates at the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Oklahoma as they prepare for the second prison rodeo that women have been invited to. The event is a state tradition first instituted in 1940 and has attracted large crowds over the years, but only to watch the men. Mr. Beesley’s film has a lot of potential for volatility. After all, it is the story of hardened criminals being thrown in front of riled up cattle for the enjoyment of the masses. What transpires throughout the runtime of the piece is so counfounding, so disturbing, and so beautiful that one can’t help but be moved by this odd and untold story.
You need some backstory, which the film provides, to understand what makes the film so dog gone wonderful. Oklahoma has more women incarcerated per capita than any other state in the U.S. Approximately 80% of them are mothers and the majority of them are in there for methamphetamine charges. Here in Oklahoma, meth is widely available and probably the biggest social problem Okies have to deal with. When the drug stastistic comes out on screen, the crowd I was with didn’t budge, wasn’t surprised. It is a fact of life out here.
So we get to know some of these women who join the rodeo in an effort to get outside of the gray wals they call home; to be a part of a team and find the personal streghth they need to make it in the world once their sentence ends. It is a moving tale, but Mr. Beesley doesn’t spoon feed us anything. As an audience, we are forced to make certain choices about the characters and the film as a whole which speak volumes about our own personal values. Is it right to watch men and women be gored by animals, or is it alright for the animals? Are we okay to believe that murderers should be given a pulpit in cinema? Can we look the victims’ families in the eyes and say “I think Danny Liles deserves a second chance because I saw a movie about him?” Should we be given the chance?
These questions and more are not present in the world of Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo, and yet they are inescapable. This is why it is such a successful film. At points, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room watching this movie, and this is among a crowd who has the power to change the bleak state of things in Oklahoma. The social problems in the state (as in any state, don’t get me wrong) could fill a stack of papers a mile high, and female incarceration and meth use are only the result of such problems, not the cause. People need to get organized, get educated, and get together, but more than that they need to get motivated to move the earth here. I believe they can do it, and I believe that Mr. Beesley’s film will help push them.