By Don Simpson | January 7, 2011
Director: Bradley Beesley
Writer(s): Bradley Beesley
Starring: Danny Liles, Jamie Brooks, Brandy Witte
The titular prison rodeo of Bradley Beesley’s (The Fearless Freaks, Christmas on Mars) documentary is the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo which is held every September in McAlester, Oklahoma. An annual tradition since 1940, prison officials decided in 2006 to begin allowing the participation of female inmates (the titular sweethearts of Bradley Beesley’s documentary) in the previously male-only event.
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo commences with the selection process for the 2007 rodeo and Beesley was apparently given unrestricted access to a men’s and a women’s prison. Beesley opts to focus on four female inmates — Rhonda Buffalo, Jamie Brooks, Brandy “Foxie” Witte, and Crystal Herrington — as they train for the upcoming rodeo. Unfortunately, the selection of these four subjects reveals a directorial preference for the most physically attractive convicts of the lot, but that is not to say that these four characters do not have noteworthy backstories to go along with their good looks. Their histories, which revolve around broken families and drugs (mainly dealing or producing methamphetamine), allow Beesley to discuss Oklahoma’s over-inflated rate of incarceration of females and problems with recidivism. (It is worth noting that Beesley spends almost equal time with their male counterparts — in particular OSP Rodeo veteran and convicted murderer Danny Liles.)
The term “gladiator” is tossed around a bit — and there is no doubt that the prisoners are risking their well-being in an arena full of bloodthirsty spectators — but the participating convicts do not see it that way. Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo reveals that the rodeo is a huge event in the prisoners’ lives; the event is something they look forward to all year, a goal for them to work towards, a reason for being.
Beesley is clearly sympathetic towards his subjects, and I do not find anything wrong with that, but there is at least one known instance that he did overstep his directorial bounds. As Beesley reportedly confirmed during a Q&A, his producers tracked down Witte’s estranged family and engineered their family reunion — while the film only reveals that “Foxie has located her family” (and we are left to assume that they were found by one of the private investigators hired by Witte). This one clandestine act thus feeds the suspicion that Beesley and his producers may have possibly orchestrated other aspects of this documentary. It seems quite appropriate that Carnivalesque Films is releasing Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo on DVD to close out 2010, the year that audiences learned to become more critical of the “truth” of documentaries (Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop, I’m Still Here).
Lack of full disclosure aside, Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo is an intriguing documentary about a fantastical topic (with a traditional underdog narrative arc to boot!) and is conveyed in a way that appears to be quite respectful of its subjects; all the while, Beesley clearly communicates his opinions of Oklahoma’s prison system. Above all, Beesley reveals that there truly is a possibility of betterment and rehabilitation if inmates are given the opportunity and the proper environment to grow while incarcerated.