Film Exposes New Alcatraz Story

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These mugshots feature four of the many black inmates imprisoned at Alcatraz island. (Courtesy of "The Black Rock")

Rushing down the Embarcadero in the rain, finally reaching Pier 38, you arrive right as the cruise boat is about to leave the dock. Quickly flashing your ID to the guard, you board the ship and go up to the second floor, looking out at the island that lies ahead. The destination: Alcatraz. The location: the prisoners’ cafeteria, which was once the most dangerous place in the prison, so treacherous they installed tear gas devices from the lights that would release with the push of a button. The mission: set up dual rear projection and stereo sound for over 300 people. The reason: because over 50 percent of those jailed in the United States today are black youth.

“The Black Rock” tells the untold story about the black inmates of Alcatraz and their struggle to survive in a primarily white maximum-security prison. Researching and filming the documentary took six and a half years to complete. Superbly directed by local filmmaker and activist Kevin Epps (“Straight Outta Hunters Point”), the film examines the lives of the few African-American prisoners who were important figures in the history of “The Rock” from the 1930s to the 1960s. Interviews with historians, archival footage, photographs and re-enactments are used to present an entirely new perspective on the most feared prison of its time during a frightening period of racial prejudice and discrimination. One of the most notable criminals in the film was Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a notorious heroin distributor from New York City and the real-life counterpart to Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas in “American Gangster” (2007). Robert Lipscomb, another black convict, was sentenced to life in prison for having around a hundred counterfeit dollars.

Other stories included that of George DeVincenzi, who worked as a guard at Alcatraz from 1950 to 1957. He is now 82 years old. He tells of murders, stabbings, numerous fights and of a black inmate who helped him stay awake on the overnight shift. “I think he killed three or four inmates himself. He was pretty vicious, but a nice guy to talk to,” he said laughingly.

Teaming up with the Golden Gate National Park Service, Epps was able to premiere the film on Alcatraz at night. A ferryboat took the audience over to the island, and before the screening, they received a special guided tour through the infamous prison. Setting up the projection and audio for the event, I was able to experience what may have been the largest movie screening ever to occur on the island.

On Feb. 27, “The Black Rock” had its theatrical premiere at the Red Vic Movie House, where speakers included director Kevin Epps, historian and author John Templeton and other prominent figures. The film’s last screening will take place tonight at 9:15. In addition, clips from the film are now a permanent part of the Alcatraz tour, offering a fresh perspective for the 1.5 million tourists who visit each year.

For tickets you can call the following number: (415) 668-3994

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