CRIMEWATCH: Short Eyes

Preceding Jamaa Fanaka’s critically acclaimed Penitentiary as well as the intense and influential TV event “Scared Straight,” 1977’s Short Eyes (prison slang for pedophile) is a searing “slice-of-life” film that dares to deal with the topic of child molestation. Controversial at the time of its release, Short Eyes eschews the stories of the victimized and instead shines a disturbing light on the predator himself: his fantasies, his motives, his “pleasures” and, as it turns out, his comeuppance.

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Everyone in Short Eyes has an unsettling story to tell. There’s Clark (Bruce Davis) a preppy-looking white man just entered into the penal system; Juan (Jose Perez) a curios inmate who makes himself available to Clark’s pedophilic confessions; “Cupcakes,” (Tito Goya) a young man whom everyone wants to bed; Paco (Shawn Elliott) a heterosexual who, nevertheless, has fallen in love with “Cupcakes,” El Rahim (Don Blakely) a militant Muslim “spiritual leader,” and Longshoe (Joseph Carberry) the self-assigned representation of the behind-bars “white race.”

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Director Robert M. (Extremities) Young brings to vivid life Miguel Pinero’s award-winning Broadway play, offering up an expanded look at inmate politics, institutionalized racism, and the combustible nature of the male ego behind bars. Add a compelling cast of unknown character actors, a select few real inmates, and a haunting location shoot—New York City’s graffiti defaced House of Detention (aka “The Tombs”) and you have a film whose omnipresent explosively colored background mirrors the characters explosive passions.

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Can a self-confessed child molester also be the “victim” of a false allegation that places him in mortal combat? Can a “guidance counselor” have illicit, self-serving ulterior motives? Can an inmate singled out for his sexual charisma both spurn and revel in his own objectification? These are just a few of the challenging questions on board. Obscene language, sexual situations, violence and murder are a part of Short Eyes’ provocative narrative. So is the unmistakable touch of Hollywood: two full musical numbers by two familiar “inmates”; Curtis (“Super Fly”) Mayfield (who also produced the soundtrack album) and Freddy (“Before The Next Teardrop Falls”) Fender.

A discomforting look at prison life and prison culture, Short Eyes, like the inmates that inhabit the “Tombs,” makes a lasting impression. Distinct and memorable.

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Josiah Howard

Josiah Howard is the author of four books including “Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide” (now in a fourth printing). His writing credits include articles for the American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Readers Digest. A veteran of more than one hundred radio broadcasts, Howard also lectures on cinema and is a frequent guest on entertainment news television.

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