The Sentence, a film written and directed by Rudy Valdez, is a deeply personal documentary that relays the story of his sister Cindy Shank and the upheaval of her life when she finds herself facing a 15-year prison sentence due to conspiracy charges and mandatory minimum sentencing. The documentary explores the relationship between Cindy and her family during the years in which she is incarcerated, as well as general challenges faced by a working class family trying to visit and communicate with an incarcerated family member. While this film manages to inspire feelings of empathy for Cindy and her plight, it clings to these feelings as a way to make their experience universally relatable and fails to explore the more unique aspects of their situation.
The film begins with a shot of children running around a messy living room while speaking to an unseen mother. A major motif is introduced early in the film, which is that of a mother who can only be present in short, almost desperate bursts.
These bursts are accompanied by quiet visual illumination in contrast to the almost dulled quality of the present day shots. The presence of Cindy’s daughters and their unwavering hope in their mother’s homecoming are accompanied with beams of sunlight or artificial bright light whenever they speak about their mother early on. Early on, we are asked to relate to Valdez’s nieces and their longing for their mother.
As Valdez begins to tell his family’s story, it becomes clear that this history means a lot to him through the bright and almost ethereal quality he gives the old pictures that flash on the screen. Valdez begins to narrate his parents journey from Mexico to the United States and how much his parents stress on education mattered to him and all of his siblings. Here the audience gets one of the few hints that they are anything but the ideal of a “normal American family.” While there is nothing wrong with their assimilation into the perception of American culture, their specifically Latinx roots are rarely mentioned. The fact that incarceration affects African-American and Latinx populations at disproportionate rates is also missing from the film.
Cindy’s life is told through a deeply personal lens so that the audience has no option but to relate. As Cindy details her relationship with a boy named Alex, the screen goes black. She begins to tell us about her relationship with Alex and how it started off as an innocent relationship that became a lot more complicated when he became a drug dealer. Cindy is quick to explain why she did not immediately break up with him, and it becomes easy to relate to someone who does not want to give up on a loved one, but ends her description of Alex by informing us he was eventually murdered. Cindy’s conflicting feelings and empathy for someone whose actions would eventually cause her unimaginable grief even in death demands its share of respect from the audience, and does a beautiful job of receiving it.
Cindy’s actions as a youth, despite her lack of participation in his drug dealing, follow her long after she is happily married with three beautiful daughters. Although this film certainly does its job describing and allowing us to empathize with Cindy through color and its scoring, it refuses to take into account that the issues at the heart of the film are heavily politicized. The only time we get direct confirmation that the issues at the film’s core are political are during shots of Valdez’s attendance at rallies demanding fairer sentencing and prison reform. Despite the fact that Cindy’s clemency was granted in 2016 by the Obama administration, there is no mention that these actions did not have bipartisan support.
During on Q&A session, the director admits that he didn’t want to appear he was focusing on a Mexican-American family when creating the film. He wanted to create a family that is relatable to people of all walks of life. While the idea of creating a film that forgoes a large part of personal identity in order to become a universal story that creates change seems laudable, it instead makes a heavy implication that a family that embraces its differences would not be relatable. While the director clearly wanted to make a film that would become a “grab bag” for causes looking to tell a human story, and in fact Valdez says that’s what he wanted to do, his forgoing of focusing more on his family background for fears of ruining more universal appeals speaks to his fears on taking necessary risks in this film.
A film, especially a documentary, that does not risk a great deal cannot accomplish a great deal. And while The Sentence accomplishes a great deal in the realm of universal relatability, it fails to describe the unique challenges faced by a Latinx family and instead presents a family that, through clever editing, appears to have little connection to their culture. And while no one is expecting Valdez or his family to enact stereotypical or disingenuous displays of Mexican-American identity, the nuances of what should have been a tragedy faced by a family in a beautiful juxtaposition of identities were ultimately ignored.
The Sentence premieres October 15 on HBO.
Pamela Padilla works at the Futuro Media after having worked at The Morgan Library, The Hispanic Society and for artists such as Mariko Mori. Her research on apocalyptic manuscripts has been presented at Stanford University and The Frick Collection. She received a dual B.A. in English and Art History from The City College of New York. Born and raised in New Rochelle, her favorite things include atmospheric horror, reading about the end of the world, and talking about movies to whoever will listen. She tweets from @polytechnique22.