Filmmaker John Lucas’ documentary “The Cooler Bandits” — which documents the lives of four men sentenced to prison in 1991 — was screened at the Whitney Humanities Center on Tuesday.
One of Lucas’ short films, a six-minute visual poem titled “Situation 7,” served as a prelude to the documentary and highlighted the dehumanization that Lucas aimed to counter through his film. Because he personally knew the subjects of the film, Lucas said he wanted to create a film that would “peel away” the statistics about mass incarceration and reveal the men’s complex personalities. The event was sponsored by the Film and Media Studies Program, Urban Ethnography Project, African American Studies Department and Films at the Whitney.
“If I could tell a story of friendship about individuals, then maybe people would think differently about others,” Lucas said.
The documentary follows the lives of four men through their prison years and their release back into society. In 1991, Donovan Harris, Charlie Kelly, Frankie Porter and Richard “Poochie” Roderick committed a series of restaurant robberies over a 10-month period in Akron, Ohio. They locked restaurant workers in walk-in coolers as they left with stolen money, an act that earned them the collective moniker “The Cooler Bandits.”
Lucas documented the men’s lives from 2006 to 2013. The first half of the film charts their lives in prison, and the second half focuses on the lives of the three released men — Harris, Kelly and Roderick — as they re-entered society and experienced difficulty adjusting to a normal life. Porter remains in prison.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion with Lucas, Harris and Roderick.
“One thing that I have to keep reminding people to take into consideration when they are seeing the film is that this is not typical,” Harris said. “You don’t get out and somebody makes a documentary about you, and you get to travel around the world and talk and see all these wonderful people. That is not what re-entry looks like.”
Lucas met Roderick’s younger cousin through a mentorship program in Akron, Ohio. Because the four men were a “package deal,” Lucas said, this connection allowed him to get to know all of them.
Six months after his release, Roderick applied to and attended Pitzer College to complete his degree in sociology. Roderick currently serves as program coordinator for the Justice-in-Education Initiative at Columbia University, where he said he helps increase access to education for formerly incarcerated people.
Harris also has a career in the criminal justice system, working for the Summit County Reentry Network, which helps recently released people re-enter society.
“Many people think that the road through post-incarceration is a linear road,” Harris said. “They think that if you get a job, a place to live and transportation, then you should be a restored citizen. But we understand that the road after incarceration isn’t like this. It is a lot of bumps and twists and turns.”
Harris said that those re-entering society suffer from “post-incarceration syndrome,” and that he wants to help others as someone who “has been there, who has walked that road” and can relate to them.
Because Roderick entered prison when he was 18 and left when he was 38, he has experienced a degree of arrested development, he said.
“It’s like the maturity continuum,” Roderick said. “You graduate from high school, you get your first form of freedom, you learn and develop responsibility on your own, you get your first job, you fall in love. These are all things that help you grow that I missed out on.”
Roderick added that he felt out of place when he first moved to California to go to college. He said that while he was trying to figure out how to fit in with adults, he felt “trapped in this young state of mind.”
Lucas’ wife is the poet Claudia Rankine, who penned “Making Room,” a poem that features in the short film that played before “The Cooler Bandits.”
Sammy Westfall | firstname.lastname@example.org