Anchored by Richard Linklater’s exceptional feature-length “Hometown Prison,” HBO’s God Save Texas may only be a three-part anthology docuseries, but in those three parts, it manages to be wide-ranging, timely and vitally important.
While the inspiration is Lawrence Wright’s book of the same title, and the focus is the Lone Star State, the template set by Linklater, Alex Stapleton and Iliana Sosa could be applied to personal/political hybrid storytelling delving into the fractured identities of all 50 states and the artists who call them home.
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Or maybe we just need more seasons of God Save Texas — premiering at Sundance before coming to HBO on Feb. 27 and 28 — since Texas represents so much of what 21st century America is likely to look like moving forward. A red state with blue cities, in which the ideology and voting interests of each demographic are far more complicated than “Democrat” or “Republican,” Texas is fantastic and problematic and fascinating in ways these three stories are only beginning to address.
Were it to stand alone, “Hometown Prison” would represent one of the best films of Linklater’s long and varied career, as well as a Rosetta Stone for much of the director’s worldview.
Like so many Sundance tales, it’s a homecoming story as, for the first time since his mother’s memorial, Linklater returns to Huntsville, Texas. It’s a small city that was home to Sam Houston, where Linklater was a football and baseball star, the site of countless memories from his past and countless references in films like Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!!
Huntsville is also the home of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and, by Linklater’s count, to seven prisons, including the most actively utilized death penalty facilities in Texas and therefore in the United States.
Texas, as Linklater explains as an active and amiable onscreen presence, leads the nation in prisons, prisoners, growth of prisons and executions. Those factors have left an indelible mark on Huntsville and on Linklater, even though he acknowledges that this is a piece of his DNA that he has never translated onto film before.
“Hometown Prison” is a sad, confused and angry exploration of the death penalty in Texas. But because it’s a Richard Linklater film, it’s also awash in heart, shaggy dog stories and quirky characters who, in this instance, happen to be real. Linklater drives around Huntsville, with Wright frequently in tow, sharing his own recollections, interviewing people from his past and sitting down for in-depth conversations and raw, revealing stories from former prison guards, wardens and a woman who spent years in public relations for the prison system.
The director keeps himself front-and-center in the documentary, and his own connections to the place and the issue at hand are woven throughout. But it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s a spectacular listener, too. His subjects easily unburden themselves of conflicted and nuanced feelings on a difficult subject in his presence. There are tears, but there’s a lot of laughter as well.
Linklater’s documentary will absorb much of the attention around God Save Texas, which features Alex Gibney’s Jigsaw shingle among its producers, and it was my favorite of the three parts, but Sosa’s “La Frontera” and Stapleton’s “The Price of Oil” are very good as well. Both under an hour, compared to 87 minutes for “Hometown Prison,” “La Frontera” and “The Price of Oil” do a similarly strong job blending autobiographical elements and inquisitive citizen journalism to present stories you might know on some level from a perspective that isn’t as familiar.
In “The Price of Oil,” Stapleton returns to Houston after 20 years as “a Texan in exile,” filming documentaries around the world. With the help of her genealogist mother and family still living in the run-down but vibrant community of Pleasantville, she traces the untold (or “undertold”) story of the Black experience in Texas, pondering the reasons people of color have so frequently been excluded from the wealth that came with the state’s oil boom.
It’s an examination of fenceline communities — neighborhoods directly adjacent to industrial facilities generating high levels of pollution — and Texas history that manages to combine Black rodeo, sundown towns and environmental racism in a way that’s tragic but, like Linklater’s film, still as dominated by warmth as by anger.
Sosa’s “La Frontera” uses the border cities of El Paso and Juarez to explain a mental state that cultural theorist Gloria Anzaldúa described as “nepantla,” the sensation of existing between two worlds. Starting with her own parents, Sosa, switching fluidly between English and Spanish, speaks with people who live and work and love between two cities that once existed almost as a unified entity, but now have been partially bifurcated by a border wall, in a way tearing both apart.
It is, once again, a story in which laughter plays a major role, but, especially when it addresses the 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, pain is right on the surface. It is, like “The Price of Oil,” a story about cultural erasure and the narratives that history books too frequently decide don’t fit. Some of the details about El Paso’s border, including recollections about the use of Zyklon B to cleanse migrants crossing into the United States, shocked me.
The thing that should be evident, even to right-wing Texans who are sure to be self-righteous about a progressive-minded docuseries picking on the state, is that all three stories are populated entirely by people who could have left Texas at any point, but didn’t. Everybody in this documentary loves Texas and just wants to be as much a part of the Texas narrative as Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott and the people who voted for them. It’s a worthy project that I hope continues beyond this.
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