When Katherine and George Messenger are taken to prison there is razor wire on the fences. According to Wikipedia it is only from the early 1970s that unreinforced barbed tape was commonly used in perimeter barriers of US prisons. This movie was based in the 1950's well before the introduction of this form of security barrier. See more »
This is what might be called a poor white trash nightmare, circa 1951. Illiterate Florida tenant farmers are thrown in jail for not paying a mostly bogus debt. Never mind that debtor's prison was one of the things this country did away with, and that poverty is no crime. This is based on a true story, which allows us to imagine how things REALLY were. The three youngest of the five Messenger children are made wards of the state. The Florida cops, prison guards and social welfare people are mostly stereotypical degenerate sadists usually found in black oppression films set in places like ante bellum Mississippi or mid-twentieth century South Africa. One of the points being made here is that prejudice in the south against poor whites was sometimes as bad as prejudice against blacks.
The thing wrong with this movie and so many like it is that the unrelenting oppression of the central characters by the state is predictable, and their struggle against that oppression is admirable and heroic. The truth is not so simple. To give director Neema Barnette credit we can see that Kathryn Messenger, played with palpable, almost painful veracity by the wide-eyed Tyne Daly, was clumsy and crude and did stupid things (like trying to bribe a welfare clerk). Her husband, sadly impersonated by Gerald McRaney, groveled a lot. There is not a hint of alcohol or drug abuse by the poor Messengers; their only faults appear to be ignorance and poverty. Perhaps it was so.
Alicia Silverstone has a minor part as the 15-year-old daughter in a paper thin house dress like a ripe tart from a Faulkner novel or a Tennessee Williams play, but manages to keep covered up. There's a hint of inbreeding with all that white flesh being flashed about, and the constant suggestion of impending rape and/or sexual abuse, but it's mostly a tease to keep the audience from falling asleep.
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