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Stranger Inside.

Stranger Inside * Written by Cheryl Dunye and Catherine Crouch * Directed by Dunye * Starring Yolonda Ross, Davenia McFadden, Rain Phoenix, LaTonya "T" Hagans, Medusa, and Patrice Fisher * HBO * Premieres June 23, 9 P.M. Eastern (check local listings)

Maybe I've been spoiled by several seasons of HBO's top-notch weekly prison drama, Oz, but if filmmaker Cheryl Dunye (The Watermelon Woman) wanted to blow the lid off women's--specifically African-American women's--experiences in prison, she hasn't accomplished it with Stranger Inside.

Dunye based the film on four years of research, including time spent with inmates at Minnesota's Shakopee Women's Correctional Facility. After all that time and research, the film should be more comprehensive and not the trifle that it is.

There are tons of characters, but we never get to know any of them, least of all the lead character, Treasure Lee (Yolonda Ross), a 21-year-old happy to be transferred from juvie to a women's prison because she's been dreaming about being reunited with her mother, Brownie (Davenia McFadden), who's incarcerated there. Treasure has never known or communicated with her mother; while growing up, she was told Brownie was dead. The bulk of the film involves Treasure hooking up with Brownie, blending into Brownie's prison family (a wife and two daughters), and being initiated into Brownie's business of selling contraband.

Brownie's adopted prison daughter Kit, played by Rain Phoenix, comes across as the most complex, intriguing, and emotional character in Stranger Inside, but aside from a few fight scenes between Kit and Treasure, we never get to know much about her. Phoenix, who looks startlingly like her brother Joaquin (to the point that you may even wonder, Is that Joaquin in drag?), does so much with the limited screen time she's given that she makes Kit's rage, despair, and disappointment always palpable.

Other interesting characters, such as Shadow (LaTonya "T" Hagans) and Treasure's sexy girlfriend, Sugar (Patrice Fisher), never get to develop beyond the peripheral. Shadow, a "G-girl" (gang girl) who taught Treasure about "taggin' and sellin' rock," is attempting to educate herself while doing time and even makes a pinhole camera to shoot a prison project. Shadow's photos were actually shot by Catherine Opie, and I would have liked to see a lot more of them, beyond the three shown above the end credits. And on more than one occasion Sugar is shown going down on Treasure, but we never get to see what Sugar gets out of the relationship. Is she paid back with drugs, protection, love, money, or even reciprocal sex?

As the film's resident baddie, McFadden's just way over the top. Dunye probably intended Brownie to be menacing, but she just comes off as cartoonish. (Case in point: Brownie stabs a girl with a fork, then continues to eat with it).

All of the characters in Stranger Inside surfer from bare-bones back stories, and even the one flashback to Treasure's youth is more confusing than film minating. Ross carries off Treasure's stoicism and seriousness, but her acting is undermined by a script that never gives us access to Treasure's feelings and history, which remain largely at a distance.

The film is most authentic during the few group therapy scenes, in which actual former inmates are mixed with actors. The inmates share raw talk about their anger, other emotions, and hopes for the future, but these scenes don't compensate for the rest of the weak script.

Compared to other prison-set programs on cable, Stranger Inside doesn't have the shock value, explicit sex, or in-depth character arcs of Oz, the heart-wrenching quality of Prison Stories: Women on the Inside, or the tongue-in-cheek humor of the fantastic B-movie satire Girls in Prison. It's a generic prison movie that had the pedigree to be something much better.

Marcus contributes to indieWIRE.com and Frontiers.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Marcus, Lydia
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Television Program Review
Date:Jul 3, 2001
Words:630
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