Dark Cell Harlem Farm

Set against the backdrop of the long history of the Texas prison system–from Juneteenth to Covid–Dark Cell Harlem Farm explores the death by suffocation of eight Black men at a prison plantation in 1913. Combining readings of primary source materials and personal reflections by formerly incarcerated individuals, footage of the prison landscapes where the incident took place, and a series of graphical interventions and excavations, the film makes an urgent and uncompromising argument for the impossibility of prison reform and the necessity of prison abolition.

Our Take – Small Axe Radical Short Film Reviews by Cole Diment 

Alex Johnston’s Dark Cell Harlem Farm is a profound, calculated and cold yet intensely moving film about the prison systems of Texas, particularly those of Fort Bend and Harris counties in Eastern Texas. The film takes individual shots of ex-convicts reading primary material sources of past prison atrocities primarily committed against black inmates. Dark Cell Harlem Farm thus powerfully opens our eyes to the endemic racism within the power structures of America, battling conservative well-wishing and historical amnesia.

As we see in the opening screens to the film, these crimes aren’t without historical causes. The lands on which the prisons and prison graveyards sit started out as slave plantations. Post-abolition these slave plantations were turned into prison plantations as the text aptly notes; these are not only prisons but hell-holes designed to extract free, involuntary labour from inmates. The continued existence of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of the United States permits this. So it’s no wonder the USA boasts one of the largest prison populations per capita in the world (700 per 100,000 people). No wonder as well that 40% of those convicts are black though black Americans make up only 13% of the total American population. 

In short, Johnston’s message is this: abolish all prisons. Reform doesn’t cut it. Reform stays within the present structure of the prison and its racist ideology. As we see from the primary sources this ideology has within it housed the means of its self-validation; the Enlightenment notion of the progress of time tied to the progress of the social. But as Johnston’s agit-prop visual text confronts us: time does not pass, it accumulates. 1865, 1913, 1980, today – each one is interchangeable. Dark Cell Harlem Farm shows us the dark side of Western enlightened thought – the necessity of racism, free labour and exploitation to its structure. 

The form and address of the film offers hope for the prison abolition movement. Combined with the dark and moody shots of the prison graveyards is the direct address of subjects, ex-convicts, to the camera as they read primary source material of prison horrors. If these people weren’t already moved to the prison abolition movement from their incarceration then this act, the compression of time within this singular moment (there is no progress), allows the fruition of a political and historical consciousness. Moreover, this direct address to the camera implicates the viewer thereby informing our own political historical consciousness at the same time. Thus, the direct address creates the necessary conditions for a collective burgeoning of a political-historical consciousness shared across space and time by ex-convicts and non-convicts alike. This scheme of collective consciousness raising thus nurtures a new community drawn together, regardless of geographical and temporal position, to combat the prison systems of America. 

  /  2022
Alexander William McKie Johnston
26:46:00 mins
Original Language English
Alexander William McKie Johnston