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Forest Whitaker Narrates "Serving Life," Affecting New Prison Doc on Oprah Winfrey Network

by Caryn James
July 27, 2011 4:00 AM
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Serving Life plays like the flip side of the brutal prison drama Oz. This narrowly focused yet affecting documentary, set in a hospice in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, follows prisoners who volunteer to help other prisoners at the end of their lives.

Narrated and executive produced by Forest Whitaker, it is the first doc to have its premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network’s Doc Club. And true to the uplifting spirit of OWN, the volunteers it follows are once-brutal criminals – murderers, armed robbers, most of them sentenced to life without parole – who regret their pasts and find a sense of redemption in their hospice work.

Whitaker’s voiceover is sparing, but he begins with a statistic most of us would never have thought about: 85 per cent of the Angola prisoners will die there. (The hospice program was started in 1997, the year before The Farm, a more searing film about life in Angola, was released.)

As we follow four volunteers through their training and into their work with the terminally ill, the emphasis is not on death but on the volunteers’ renewed sense of life. They talk to the camera, each bluntly taking responsibility for his past. Most haven’t seen their families in years, and sadly say it’s their own fault. Some reconnect with those families after their hospice experience. They are especially touched – it is the film’s most moving sequence for viewers too – by a wizened prisoner who fades before our eyes, as even as he does, tells his imprisoned older brother he has to change.

The unobtrusive cameras capture some harsh moments. We hear a death rattle. We see a dying child molester, a belligerent personality whose surgery for a brain tumor has left him mentally unable to understand his own disease and probably at that point incapable of regret. Whatever the film intended, he’s the one person I could never muster a shred of sympathy for. That’s not necessarily a bad response, because this selective view of prison life does leave you wondering what else is happening at Angola.

But that’s outside the scope of the documentary, which doesn’t pretend to be about prison in general. Instead, it makes a convincing case that kindness and humanity can flourish in the least likely places.

Serving Life premieres Thursday, July 28th. Here’s’ the trailer, which oddly reveals the most difficult of the death scenes and much less of the film’s compassionate spirit.

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  • Kimberley Simpson | September 13, 2013 3:59 PMReply

    This is one of the most touching documentaries I have watched. I was honored to see how the Warden used his spiritualty to help people make a difference. He as a leader helped others to be leaders. His reasons for supporting/implementing this program is outstanding. His ability not to pass judgment on the inmates can only be done by someone that truly LOVES GOD. As a person that spent 15 years living a criminal lifestyle, I understand the walls required to detach from our emotions. To see these men let down their walls and show love to complete strangers in a prison setting had me in tears. As someone that has counsel inmates for nearly 20 years reminds me of how proud I am when I see the behavior change in people that walk through our doors. Tell all the guys what a great job they are doing. Remind them no matter how mean and evil one of their patience may become like Chance it all stems from fear. Great Job Great Coverage.

  • Mrs brown sandoval | October 15, 2011 10:08 AMReply

    My God My God when i watch these men that pass -way
    the way that they do ,and when they do it really really hurt

    however they did do wrong things but it is so sad and the tears just keep falling down as i type it is so saqd i wish that i could help it is very hard to see how they did right there
    but i could read to them bath them and just help the life that they have left be a happy one before they pass -way

    God bless those that help and i am no nurse but i has a baby that was sick he weight 1 pound 4 oz oh boy the lord my goe help me with my son and he is 3 years old and healthy .God bless those prsion men that help so much my prayers go out to you all.

  • Misty Lenon | August 5, 2011 6:00 AMReply

    This documentary was amazing. I know that the men out themselves in that situation but I want to applaud them for what they're doing. May GOD bless them and continue to show them the path of righteousness!

  • Lei Konishi | August 4, 2011 6:08 AMReply

    Amazing .. one of the best documentaries i have ever experienced...

  • LvFlg | August 3, 2011 9:53 AMReply

    excellent doc - immediate solutions needed.

  • Linda | July 30, 2011 3:02 AMReply

    Gripping story about finding your purpose when you may have felt your life was over and there was nothing to give back.
    I work with homeless singles and families and see that struggle how generationally, they are in a sense born into poverty and most times, violence and prison. We need more programs like this where people can get "out of themselves" and be inspired to bring humanity and love into extremely dire life struggles.

  • MW | July 29, 2011 7:22 AMReply

    I'm watching this for the second time tonight. Amazing story.

  • Deena | July 29, 2011 2:56 AMReply

    What a great documentary..
    Great Warden

  • Theresa Robertson | July 28, 2011 4:18 AMReply

    I can't wait to watch tonight. My sister was a physician in the hospice division at Angola while this was being filmed. She was just recently laid off. She truly loved working at the prison and the prisoners loved her, too. She treated them as she would any other patient with dignity and respect.

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