PRYOR, OK —
Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY — For most of its history, the Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo only allowed male inmates to compete at “Big Mac” (McAlester Penitentiary). But for a few short years, women could ride ‘em and rope ‘em too.
That’s the inspiration for the documentary film, “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” an appealing and at times even sentimental motion picture.
Happily, the film, referenced in a recent commentary on prison reform, can be viewed online.
Three main characters — Jamie Brooks, Rhonda Buffalo and Crystal Herrington — competed when women were allowed in from 2006 to 2009, the event’s last year.
The tear ducts get rolling when Brooks, then serving 13 years for a killing, says that in working to make the rodeo, “for the first time in my life, I felt really free.”
You can only do so much efficiently in an 90 minutes, but this film delivers strong leading characters. We see Herrington released, having served her full term for a drug conviction.
We also witness Brooks’ ups and downs on her way to better life and Buffalo’s dreams of a nobler future.
Prison officials are sympathetic in this one, especially those who work hard to ensure their incarcerated charges get a shot at better living through rodeo. The state corrections system granted remarkable access to those who worked on the project.
Rodeo events themselves are portrayed in living color and without much commentary. The viewer may sometimes be repulsed, but is unavoidably drawn to drama in the Mad Scramble, Bronc Riding, Bull Poker, Bull Riding, and “money the hard way” (nabbing a stash of cash from the horns of a charging and angry bull).
From roughly 150 hours of raw footage, director Bradley Beesley assembled a fine, engaging and efficient story, complete with music that enhances rather than distracts from the film’s momentum.
The story includes a handful of men. Danny Liles, who served three decades for a knife killing. is in some way’s the film’s narrator, and became such a stellar and well-behaved prisoner that he garnered his freedom in March 2011.
It’s intriguing to watch Liles’ interaction with other prisoners. Budget cuts and transfer to a medium facility (where he is shown working with a rescued dog) kept him out of the 2008 rodeo, but his post-film story has a happy ending.
While in prison, he became a licensed electrician. At his release, his worldly possessions fit in a rolled-up sack, like a hobo. His lawyer gave him cowboy boots and a shirt, and Danny began a new life.
Now working in the oil fields, he married a Native American woman last year. He’s a tattooed law-abiding motorcycle buff who’s active in his church.
The film humanizes criminal offenders honestly. We see real people who have done things on the dark side, but are working toward the good. Certain characters stress they “deserved” their sentence or “had it coming.”
Perhaps the most distinctive sequence on screen comes when the women’s rodeo team from the Eddie Warrior Correctional Center gets ready to travel to McAlester for the rodeo. They take great care with individual makeup and help one another with hair preparation. Each wears a white T-shirt or undershirt before slipping on a bright pink cowboy shirt and donning a fine looking hat.
As the women then slowly walk down the main street at prison to the cheers of fellow inmates, their faces are beaming, eyes brimming with tears. There’s no way to avoid pulling for them to make amends, do better and move ahead.