From Rikers to Staten: The Stanford Prison Experiment

07/15/2015 8:00 AM |
photo courtesy of IFC Films

The Stanford Prison Experiment
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Opens July 17

This harrowing dramatization of the infamous titular incident is hardly the first film to take it as its subject. But previous inspirees, from 2001’s Das Experiment to its straight-to-DVD American remake, The Experiment, have been “based on” Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s questionable research into power dynamics, resembling it rather than re-creating it; whether for provocation or titillation, those depictions moved past mere sadism into manslaughter, their filmmakers not realizing that such hyperbole wasn’t necessary; as The Stanford Prison Experiment so efficiently demonstrates, the real story is horrible enough without embellishment.

Billy Crudup plays Zimbardo, a Standford psychology professor who had the idea in 1971 to build a fake penitentiary in the university’s basement, where paid student volunteers (played by Ezra Miller, The Knick’s Michael Angarano, and several others) would spend two weeks in August assuming the roles of prisoners and guards. He wanted to see what would happen, and within less than 24 hours he had his answer: the volunteers quickly lose their self-conscious smirks, and you quickly forget they’re not real inmates and correctional officers, as the psychological abuse rapidly escalates and the captives’ senses of self are broken down. You’re left with the gleeful sadists and their robotically obeisant flock (and a few freak-outs), each with exceptional fodder for How I Spent My Summer Vacation essays. Zimbardo shut it down after less than a week.

When the Germans tell this story, the obvious subtext becomes, what makes Nazism possible? But in American hands, other themes emerge. There’s the “guards” living out Cool Hand Luke fantasies not as Paul Newman but as Strother Martin—shaggy-haired 70s types getting a taste of their daddies’ law-and-order dreams of John Wayne-like authority. And there’s the children of privilege getting an experience of what life outside their bubbles is like: how systems break people through dehumanization. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez favors rectilinear compositions and camera movements across x and y axes, creating an aesthetic orderliness, slotting the characters into cinematic cellblocks.

Though it explores race only perfunctorily, the movie starts to feel timely as it explores the immediacy with which people in power—specifically law enforcement—relish their might and control. While watching these people play at prison, you start to imagine what life is like for actual people at the mercy of actual authority figures. (Inmates started rioting at Attica just months after the real experiments.) Now imagine it plus racism. This is how the conditions are created for both Rikers Island and Staten Island; correctional officers aren’t so different from police officers, from New York to Ferguson, Baltimore to Cleveland. The Stanford prison experiment never felt more relevant.