Film Review: The Sentence

Rudy Valdez's intimate, searingly personal account of his sister's incarceration indicts the mandatory minimum-sentence system not through accumulating facts but by showing its traumatic toll on his family.
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When people involved in criminal-justice reform talk about something called "the girlfriend problem," they're not discussing a bad relationship. What they mean is a recurring situation wherein the police arrest and charge somebody (usually a man) on drug conspiracy charges, and since the arrestee frequently has a significant other (most often a woman) who was in the proximity when all the drugs were being distributed and guns illegally purchased, that significant other is charged with the same crimes. In this scenario, proximity equals knowledge equals guilt. Add to that the stringent provisos of mandatory minimum sentencing and the result is tens of thousands, at a minimum, of nonviolent convicts with passive awareness of but often no active involvement in the drug trade languishing in prisons for little benefit at great taxpayer expense and incalculable cost to their communities. Rudy Valdez's documentary briefly references the former issues to focus with a gentle but riveting force on the latter. There's good reason for that. His sister was trapped by the girlfriend problem.

Valdez’s parents were Mexican migrant workers who settled in Michigan. His father became a small-business owner, his mother a schoolteacher. They raised a family, Valdez the youngest. His sister Cindy was his introduction to movies and a lot else. “She took me everywhere,” he notes in the plaintive narration that underlies Valdez’s homespun family footage that comprises most of The Sentence. In his soft, stricken tone, Valdez lays out his family’s tragedy.

Cindy was the first member of the family to try for college. She then fell in with a guy who became a drug dealer. When he was murdered, the police found money, drugs and guns in their home. Refusing to plead guilty to conspiracy, Cindy felt lucky to get the charges dropped. She married Adam, a stolidly gentle provider, and they had three girls. Six years passed, and she was suddenly charged again. Found guilty on federal drug conspiracy charges, she received a 15-year sentence, the mandatory minimum allowed. “I was guilty,” Cindy says in one of the prison phone calls scattered through the movie like letters from a ghost. “But 15 years is too long.”

There’s a lot Valdez could have jumped off to from that point. Shelves groan under the weight of books, articles and treatises on the radically discriminatory and inefficient prison-feeding pipeline mandatory minimums produced. But The Sentence only briefly touches on the broader national issue, slotting in a handful of appropriately infuriated talking heads who term it a failure of both policy and law.

But while Valdez is deeply enmeshed in that subject, The Sentence is not really a movie about mandatory minimums. It’s about his sister, Cindy, and what her mandatory minimum has done not just to her, but to her parents, her siblings, her husband and most painfully, her three forever-beaming little girls—Autumn, Ava and Annalis—who we watch grow up onscreen and without a mother for the eight-year span of Valdez’s bruisingly patient story. At first, the movie is almost more a portrait of those girls and their father just trying to make the best of a bad situation, goofing around and blowing kisses over the phone to their imprisoned mother putting a brave voice on a terrible situation. As they grow up on camera, though, the strain of all those years of separation, exacerbated by her being moved to a labor camp far away in Florida, becomes more apparent. Meanwhile, the chance that Cindy’s appeal for clemency will be approved before Barack Obama leaves the White House starts to seem like just one more false promise.

The ticking clock of the clemency countdown, combined with the clear strain on Valdez and his family members as well as the aching power of Cindy’s daughters’ optimism, give the last stretches of The Sentence the kind of heart-heavy emotional pull that most narrative features can only dream of. While Valdez’s focus seems on its surface tightly personal, when viewers see his family they can’t help but imagine all those other families and communities riddled like Swiss cheese from all the disappeared. This is a riveting, important story in which the personal can’t help but be political.