Life Crime probes questions of violent crime and punishment through the story of Reggie Austin, a likable, articulate musician who spent 35 years behind bars, denied time and again by the parole board despite many recommendations that he be released.
While filming the Frank Morgan tribute concert in San Quentin for Sound of Redemption, I met inmate Reginald Austin # B57661, a fellow musician who knew Frank when they were in the Q together. By then, Reggie had been in jail for 33 years for second-degree murder. He was not sure he’d ever get out. But he was sure of two things: his own guilt, and the inadequacies of the criminal justice system.
That night in 2012, something special happened. Reggie got onstage to play a tune with the all-star band (George Cables, Ron Carter, Delfeayo Marsalis, Mark Gross, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and Grace Kelly), and by his own account, it changed his life.
Life Crime is about what happened from there and how that moment led to Mr. Austin’s parole after 12 previous unsuccessful attempts. It delves into the heart of our mass incarceration problem and touches on a whole range of issues about social justice, racism, inequality, violence, drug addiction, rehabilitation, forgiveness and redemption.
Reggie’s story comes full circle when he is invited to play at the Frank Morgan Taos Jazz Festival. For the first time in over 35 years he plays for a public audience, experiences the thrill of a cheering audience, and finally steps into a new life.
But this is what happened when we took a group of the world’s greatest musicians into San Quentin to do a concert in honor of Frank Morgan for the film Sound of Redemption, and met inmate # B57661 Reggie Austin. We didn’t know who he was, didn’t even know he existed. He didn’t know we were coming, but he knew Frank Morgan and showed up at the concert. Then, urged by a prison official, he mounted the stage and played a tune with the band. From that moment on, we were linked.
My deepest passions are stirred by human rights violations, whether at the hands of dictators or as a result of systemic injustice in the U.S.A. The problem of mass incarceration in the U.S., racist at its root, is so huge it often feels overwhelming. Reggie’s story is a path into the deepest complexities of the issue. He is articulate about both the mistakes he made in his own life and the inequities of our criminal justice system. He also defies expectations and easy categorizations, which has led me to careful reflection on the issues and deeper moral questions. To what degree do our prisons exist to punish perpetrators, protect the public, or reform those incarcerated? What should justice look like? Reggie can never bring back the life he took, but if he can help bring change, that might be a redemption of its own.
Inspired by the serendipity of our meeting, Reggie’s long struggle to right his wrong, and the many lifers I’ve met since I began this, I want to make Life Crime thought-provoking, compelling, revelatory and, most of all, a film that will carve out a significant place in the critical national debate on criminal justice.
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