The Keeper
Produced by Michelle Silverstein
Written and Directed by Joe Brewster
Released by Kino International

Joe Brewster’s film The Keeper came out while New York was reeling from the ease of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant beaten and tortured by white cops in Brooklyn. Coincidentally, his movie is about wayward corrections officers—but the officers are black, not white. Shot for a mere $150,000, without help from a major studio, The Keeper is the most brutally honest film to date about life inside prison—in this case, Kings County Jail, where Brewster, an independent black director, used to work as a psychiatrist. Portraying the attitudes and behavior of black cops and guards, The Keeper parallels the work of Richard Wright, who saw a white society and justice system incurably hostile to the faceless, violent underclass. The film points to an ever more visible divide between minorities who have assimilated to some degree and those who have not.

Filmed mostly at Kings County Jail, the movie opens with several officers interrogating Jean Baptiste, a Haitian immigrant arrested after a black woman (apparently strung out on drugs) accused him of raping her. Stubbornly protesting his innocence, Jean is hauled off to a cell to await trial, whereupon he tries to hang himself only to be saved at the last second by Paul Lamont, a black corrections officer and law student. After talking with the woman who accused Jean, Paul becomes convinced of the man’s innocence and raises the money to bail him out of jail. Alienated from his family, Jean moves in with Paul and his wife Angela, who is at first scared but then enthralled by this quiet Haitian with his interest in voodoo and bizarre rituals. Superstitious, mysterious, and aloof, Jean is clearly out of place in the modern, concrete world, unlike Paul, who—in spite of having a Haitian immigrant father—has assimilated well and is working toward a law degree.

At Kings County Jail, Paul Lamont is the exception to the rule —guards and corrections officers are cynical, embittered, and brutal. The prison staff knows all too well how ineffective criminal justice is and how futile the idea of reform. The staffs attitudes are summed up by a black officer named Clarence Ross, who guards the prison’s law library. During his shift, Clarence wonders aloud what drives black men to bash an old woman in the head for $2.50 and a subway token. To him, the blacks who pass in and out of the jail’s doors are “hopeless.” When a black Muslim inmate protests, “You don’t even know me,” Clarence retorts, “No, but I know a thousand motherf—–s like you. I’m from Brownsville. I know you’d rather hit my mama in the head for a nickel than work for a nickel.” (Imagine a white officer being so candid.)

Though they are minorities themselves, the guards have given up regarding the prisoners as anything more than savage Bigger Thomases. It’s not hard to understand the despair of guards who see the prison population swelling and frequent eruptions of violence from the inmates. (The game of criminal justice, Brewster seems to believe, is rigged. The prison’s elderly exterminator admits to Paul late one night that he deliberately fails to do his job, letting rats go after he catches them to ensure that he will always have a source of income—an interesting metaphor for the criminal justice bureaucracy itself.)

But Paul wants to be fair-minded. He has enough faith in Jean’s character to disbelieve the rape charge and to let Jean near his wife. Jean, it turns out, is quite a charmer, with knowledge of French songs and Creole recipes. His interests also include strange voodoo rituals, which he and his friends enact before Paul and Angela. As she grows alienated from her tense, irritable husband, who is ill-at-ease among guards he finds “scarier than the prisoners,” Angela grows more and more interested in Jean, who is mysterious, vigorous, alive. Fed up, Paul finally kicks Jean out of the house, hoping this will nip Angela’s interest in the bud. It doesn’t, of course; Angela starts seeing Jean behind her husband’s back.

Released from jail, the black Muslim quickly gets arrested again for “steering” —giving the location of a drug den to an undercover cop. Although this in itself is a trivial offense, the inmate now faces a three-year sentence because of his long rap sheet. He believes, with some reason, that the system has been unfair to him, since the arresting cop repeatedly nagged him for the location of the drug den. Infuriated, the prisoner goes berserk and “shanks” one of Paul’s colleagues, a well-liked white officer, in the face. The guards—including a reluctant Paul—decide to mete out a punishment that will stick. In a scene reminiscent of Abner Louima’s beating, Clarence Ross, Paul, and several other guards enter the prisoner’s cell wearing white rubber gloves and pummel and torture him almost to death. When one of the guards pulls out a switchblade and proposes to kill him, Paul makes an exit, saying he will have no part of it. His astonished colleagues watch him leave, perhaps wondering whether they should let Paul get away. In the end, they decide not to kill the prisoner, but we see how the justice system breeds two different kinds of rage—the prisoner has been driven mad by a penal code he could not understand or endure; the guards go wild because of the system’s failure to deal with rats the way it should.

Although he takes part in the beating, Paul likes to believe that he is above the savage hatred that almost drives his colleagues to kill the prisoner. But Paul himself, though he will not admit it, turns out to harbor the same elemental fear and hatred that grip his colleagues. Troubled by Angela’s coolness toward him, Paul starts following her and studying her ever}’ move. After seeing his wife leave Jean’s place one night, Paul storms in, revolver in hand, and confronts the Haitian, demanding to know if he slept with Angela. When Jean, with his usual diffidence, fails to respond right away, Paul shoots him in the chest. Despite his desire to be magnanimous, Paul, like the whites in Native Son, believes the worst about the black outsider without any evidence at all. If Jean spent time alone with Angela, he must have slept with her, just as Bigger Thomas must have raped Mary Dalton once he had a chance to be alone with her, momentarily free from the constraints imposed by white society. The difference now is that by acting on his prejudice, Paul ruins his own life as well as destroying Jean’s.

Things have come a long way since the days of Richard Wright, when scared black fugitives were always the ones on the receiving end of prejudice and hatred. Today, the sharpest division of all may be that between Uncle Toms and black thugs, as Joe Brewster reminds us in the final moments of his film. Some time after the beating of the prisoner, the law library receives a phone call purportedly from “Captain Thompson,” requesting to see Clarence Ross upstairs in the prison’s gym. When he enters the gym and the door slams shut behind him, he confronts not the police captain but six or seven large-bodied inmates. Among them is a certain black Muslim, who greets him with the words, “I know a thousand motherf—–s just like you . . . “