In love with Oklahoma’s “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo”

OKLAHOMA CITY — The 90-minute film documentary, “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” is an appealing and at times even sentimental motion picture. You can catch this 2010 release from time to time on HBO, but limited videos produced sold out awhile back. 

Happily, the film, referenced in a recent commentary on prison reform, can be viewed online

“Sweethearts” relates the story of the first group of women to participate in the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo. From 1940 to 2009, the rodeo provided male inmates at several state prison facilities a chance to compete at “Big Mac” (McAlester Penitentiary). The story distils an event full of drama, rough edges and apt comparisons to stories like “Gladiator.” 

Three main characters – Jamie Brooks, Rhonda Buffalo and Crystal Herrington – were released from prison after the film was finished. They attended the Oklahoma City premiere four years ago, as did two criminal defense lawyers who get a fair share of screen time, Jim Rowan and Irven Box.

From 2006 to 2009, the event’s last year, the prison rodeo included women. The cowgirls’ involvement led to this unforgettable motion picture.

When released, some reviewers decried injuries and hardships depicted in the course of two rodeos. Others were shocked at how explicitly the prisoners themselves credit the event with giving them purpose, direction and focus during their time behind the walls.

As for the convicts themselves, selected for the appeal and ultimate hopefulness of their personal stories, the spiritual deprivation of growing up in awful family environments is sketched. That is leavened, especially by restored family ties for one felon, Foxie, in one of the story’s most emotional moments. 

The tear ducts getting rolling when Jamie, then serving 13 years for a killing, says that in working to make the rodeo, “for the first time in my life, I felt really free.”

You can only do so much efficiently in an hour and a half, but this film delivers strong leading characters. We actually see Crystal released, having served her full term for a drug conviction.

We also witness Jamie’s ups and downs on her way to better life, Foxie’s triumph in bronc riding, Rhonda’s dreams of a nobler future and other vignettes.

Prison officials are sympathetic in this one, especially those who work hard and practically to assure their incarcerated charges get a shot at better living through rodeo. The state Corrections system granted remarkable access to those who worked on the project.

Rodeo events themselves are portrayed in living color and without much commentary. The viewer may sometimes be repulsed, but is unavoidably drawn to drama in the Mad Scramble, Bronc Riding, Bull Poker, Bull Riding, and “money the hard way” (nabbing a stash of cash from the horns of a charging and angry bull). 

From roughly 150 hours of raw footage, Director Bradley Beesley brought forth a fine, engaging and efficient story, complete with good music that enhances rather than distracts from the film’s momentum.

The story includes a handful of men. A Rowan client, Danny Liles, served three decades for a knife killing. Danny, in some way’s the film’s narrator, became such a stellar and well-behaved prisoner that he garnered his freedom in March 2011.

It is intriguing to watch Liles’ interaction with other prisoners. Budget cuts and transfer to a medium facility (where he is shown working with a rescued dog) kept Danny out of the 2008 rodeo, but his post-film story has a happy ending. 

While in prison, he became a licensed electrician. At his release, his worldly possessions fit in a rolled-up sack, like a hobo. His lawyer gave him got him cowboy boots and a shirt, and Danny began a new life. 

Now working in the oil fields, he married a Native American woman last year. He’s a tattooed law-abiding motorcycle buff who is active in his church. 
The film humanizes criminal offenders honestly. We see real people who have done things on the dark side, but are working toward the good. Certain characters stress they “deserved” their sentence or “had it coming.” 

Perhaps the most distinctive sequence on screen comes when the women’s rodeo team from the Eddie Warrior facility gets ready to travel to McAlester for the rodeo. They take great care with individual makeup and help one another with hair preparation. Each wears a white T-shirt or undershirt before slipping on a bright pink cowboy shirt and donning a fine looking hat. 

As the women then slowly walk down the main street at prison to the cheers of fellow inmates, their faces are beaming, eyes brimming with tears. There’s no way to avoid pulling for them to make amends, do better and move ahead. 

The film is technically superior and well-edited in service of an informed citizenry. The sweethearts are pretty in pink, and their story remains a compelling work of art.

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