“WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH?”

That is exactly the words I texted Angela Shelton, the writer / director of THE HAMMER, after it finished playing on my flat-screen. The movie she created is the most unique film you’ll see this year and quite possibly ever. Is it about the brutality and violence of early prisons? Yes. Is it about what one man would sacrifice for love? Yes. Is it about transgender issues? Yes… but definitely not how you’d expect. Is it about religion and faith? Yes! Is it based on actual living breathing humans that went through this and make cameos in the film? Surely its not that too.. oh but it is!! YES YES YES!! What the hell? Right? The story is real. The violence, the love, the message… Wow.

Sadly we live in a cookie-cutter world that wants to put us all in little boxes but the filmmaker Angela Shelton defies this and I’m not surprised she took on the subject; as anyone familiar with her history knows that she is as varied and unique as this tale she championed. But lets get to it shall we, what is the story I’m blathering on and on and on about?

THE HAMMER is the TRUE STORY of George and Doc, best friends from reform school to life in prison where George becomes an unbeatable prison boxer, with songwriter Doc as his cornerman. When George is offered freedom to fight in the 1984 Olympic games, he shocks everyone by turning it down, sending Doc on a journey to discover the true meaning of friendship, faith, and the heart.

This story is one of a kind. At the center is a story of friendship, loyalty, and brotherhood between close friends George Lee Martin (GBENGA AKINNAGBE) who is serving a 40-year sentence for “the bitch” (3 strikes: armed robbery) and ‘Doc’ Dixon (JACKSON RATHBONE) a rough Southern boy singer with a life sentence for chopping cars and kidnapping.

Best friends since they were 12-years-old in reform school, George and Doc are still buddies after they wind up in the same prison where George became a boxer and Doc stepped in as his corner-man. George has a million-dollar smile that melts your heart, even though he knocks out 5-6 guys every day. Doc not only spends his time in George’s corner, he has a convict band and also runs the bank, taking bets on fights, football games and anything else inmates and admins want to bet on. George is unbeatable, so everyone bets on him, including the Warden who starts bringing in champs to fight George on Friday Night Fights. George wins every time and when inmates and admins ask him how he does it, he hits his chest and proclaims “I got Heart, Baby!” which is the original title song of the film.

The prisoners in the LGBT community are referred to as “sissies” in prison and a group of them are cheerleaders for Fight Nights, chanting their cheer THE HAMMER Crystal (SHAWN-CAULIN YOUNG) is a born-again Christian transgender female inmate who is the queen of the sissies. She is the ring card girl during boxing matches and also George’s cellmate. Having a sissy cellmate is not frowned upon because guys get them to clean and do laundry and call them a “house mouse.” Crystal is the black sheep of a very wealthy and prominent Tennessee family, who had her locked up under a fake name and trumped up drug charges in order to protect their family name and hide her away. Despite being ashamed of and imprisoned, Crystal is well taken care of financially by her family and uses that money for top of the line makeup and fashions that she shares with all of her other “sissies.”

After George knocks out the Golden Gloves Champ, free world coaches bring in the heavyweight champ JOHN TATE to have a workout fight before his come-back battle with LARRY HOLMES in April 1984. John Tate and his manager get more than they bargained for when George knocks out Tate in under a minute and messes up his head. This film reveals the real reason why the 1984 TATE/HOLMES fight had to be canceled.  The Olympic boxing team coach had been watching George during workouts and Fight Nights. After George knocks out Tate, the coach gets him an offer, agreed upon by the Warden and the Governor, for George to go free to win the gold for the USA in the 1984 Olympics.

The Warden allows the prisoners to party and listen to Doc’s convict band play to celebrate their friend George getting to win the gold for the USA. As the “bank” inside, Doc faced many hits on his life. George overhears a plot to kill his best friend and alerts Doc, who stabs the guy in an effort to kill or be killed. The victim lives to accuse Doc, who is sent to the “hole” as punishment before George goes to the Olympics.

Unbeknownst to Doc, George tells the Wardens and Olympic coach that he will go if he can bring someone with him. They all think it is Doc and are shocked to discover that George wants to bring Crystal, the gorgeous white born-again Christian sissy. Having kept their relationship a secret from everyone, including Doc, George now outs himself that he is in love with her and he’s not leaving without her. The Olympic coach refuses, canceling the deal, forcing George to stay in prison and the Warden to lose all his planned gambling bets.  The Warden retaliates for losing tons of money by separating Crystal and George. He has her transferred to another prison across the state while Doc is in solitary, unaware of any of this.

As a devout Catholic Doc spends his time in confinement reading his Bible, working out, and writing songs. One song, LOVE IS A ROUND ROOM, is inspired by something Crystal said to him during one of their many arguments. It was well known that Doc hated Crystal and all sissies; he thought they were disgusting. He always figured George had a sissy cellmate in order to have a house mouse. When officer release Doc from the hole, he thinks he’s missed the Olympics. He is shocked to hear people disrespecting George, who has now been shunned by inmates. Doc has a fit of anger when he hears his friends saying George is gay and demands to know where he is. Due to his violent and bigoted streak, people assume Doc is heading to hurt or kill George during his walk from hearing the news in the chow hall to confronting George in the yard. But Doc surprises everyone when he is more furious that George never told him about Crystal, than anything. Doc cannot wrap his head around Crystal being a he or a she, but he loves George and if George has found love, then he’s happy for him and says he deserves it. This open-minded acceptance of Doc bonds these “road dogs” into an even deeper friendship.

Hearing that the Warden has taken Crystal from his best friend, Doc works for eight years paying off guards and gambling to get her and George transferred back together. The problem is that to cover her pain of being discarded by her family Crystal uses drugs, shooting up oxycodone. As a good Christian girl, she shared her needles and accidentally contracted AIDS. She is an inmate at the Special Needs Prison when Doc finally finds her and is on her deathbed when he is able to reunite her and George. George is able to say goodbye to his love before she dies. When George becomes sick, his friends and admins assume that he also has what they refer to as the “gay flu” so he is awarded a compassionate release and able to leave prison to die. Doc, thinking his best friend died, dedicates a song to him, performing a tribute to the memory of George for all of his old friends and inmate-friendly admins.

While the filmmakers were in pre-production, they had to have life story releases or proof of death from the people represented in this true story. They could not find George’s death certificate so hired a private investigator to help them as they worked on all the other production elements. When the investigator came back with the news that she could not find George’s death certificate, she found him, everyone was shocked, none more than Doc. The two best friends were reunited just weeks before filming started in time for writer/director Angela Shelton to write them parts so they could appear in the film. Doc plays the counselor who alerts George that he got a compassionate release and is free to go. The real George plays the officer who lets the actor playing him out of prison. The real men are in the scene where the actors playing them say their final goodbye and once you know that those are the real men, the tears in their eyes make a lot of sense and warms your heart.

The film is dedicated to Crystal, who was born Timothy and erased from her family. As the credits roll we see real life pictures of Doc and George in prison but missing among them are photos of Crystal since every aspect of her, including her name, have been erased from the records. We honor and remember her for the wonderful person she was.

THE HAMMER encompasses a lot of the things that we as human beings hold dear to us and are willing to fight and die for. With a cast of 59 speaking parts, this beautiful story is framed with the colorful characters based on real people, from the murdering bisexual biker, to the 80-year-old who can’t remember why he’s in prison. It is a movie of love, triumphs and friendships that last a lifetime. Surrounding the main line of friendship and love are incredible boxing scenes, social issues, prison reform, racial undertones and injustices all set within the walled system of a prison but there is no way to fit this movie into a box. To have to call it one thing, it would be an epic love story.

To bring the audience into this true story, it is told through the omniscient third person of a smooth stabilized camera operated by LEONIDAS JARAMILLO (Director of Photography), allowing the audience to be a part of this true moment in history.

 

My Interview with Director Angela Shelton

 

How did you come to tell this story and why?

After my documentary “Searching for Angela Shelton” was released I was speaking at a conference in New York City in 2010 and met another presenter named Doc Dixon who was speaking about prison reform and we hit it off immediately. Later that year my husband and I were visiting Doc and his wife and we were up late drinking wine, listening to Doc’s prison stories when he told me about his best friend and fellow prisoner, George Lee Martin. I could not stop crying. It was one of the most beautiful stories I’d ever heard. I told Doc that this story needed to be a movie. He agreed and said that only I could do it, and gave me his permission.

 

What resonated exactly with the story of THE HAMMER?

This story is as complex and deep as we are as humans. Knowing that only a few hundred people witnessed what really happened I felt a strong sense of duty to ensure this story became known to the world, I could not live with myself if I let it fade away silently. Being entrusted with this has been a true honor and in many ways a spiritual experience. I wrote and directed it so that Doc represents us as society, as he opens his mind and heart my hope is that the audience transitions with him.  My love for this movie and the people in it grows every time I watch it.  All of my heart is in THE HAMMER

 

How was it having George and Doc involved in this project?

Doc said that when he was inside that the prisoners would always complain about prison shows and movies being totally bogus so I made sure he was an integral part of every phase of the production and pre-production so that THE HAMMER could be “convict approved.” George was a HUGE surprise and the biggest gift the movie could ever provide. We all thought he was dead, including Doc. We were searching for his death certificate for our insurance policy and instead of finding that, we found HIM! George and Doc were reunited during pre-production. I got to witness it and it was to this day one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever seen. I was able to write them both parts in the film so the real George gets to escort the actor playing him out of the prison gates. To see the two of them in the scenes with the actors playing them still brings tears to my eyes.

 

 

My Interview with Shawn-Caulin Young

 

What is it about the story that resonates most with you?

I think the thing that resonates the most about the story is love and how powerful it really is. There is no definition of love, there’s only the feeling of it. You have two choices in life, love or fear and I hope that when people walk away from this movie they chose love more often than fear.

How was it having George and ‘Doc’ involved in this project?

It’s invaluable to have people on board who actually lived and experienced this life. It really maintained the truth and authenticity of what Angela was creating, as well as a guide for us as actors. I don’t care how much research you do, it’s not unless you have the people who were actually there that you’re able to bring forth those little things that bring out the truth in a performance.

How are audiences are going to respond to this film?

I want those who are not comfortable to come out of the woodwork so that we can have a conversation. Because at the core of what we do as artists, as storytellers, is we have conversations. We hold the mirror up to society and say deal with it, this is you, this is us. I want people to have dialogue with each other, to make people think. To let go of this dogma that has defined us for so long and get right back to why I love this movie. Love. Love has no boundaries, love is a round room, as Crystal would say, there are no corners to hide in.

What was it like working with Angela?

I’m so grateful for this experience. For Angela and her faith and trust in me. At the core of it all, anything is possible and Angela really proved that with this movie. She took what many people said could not be done and did it, and she did it beautifully. For that in itself I hope female directors, filmmakers, producers and writers can look at Angela as a shining example of not taking no for an answer and to not let anyone put you in a box as a filmmaker.

 

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I met Angela Shelton while working on the red carpet premiere of a comedy she also released recently, I’ve covered that film on my column before. She was charming and cool before the event and just a delight in general. Here’s a clip of us together from that event.

I post that because I can like somebody as a person and still not like their “art” but let me just say, this artist destroyed me. Her film bore into my soul. Once the film ended, my tears didn’t. I looked up her podcast with the filmmaker talking with the real life people that inspired the story and I got to tell you, it was just amazing. I lay in my bed listening to episode after episode… only adding more to the history. My favorite genre of art is a lonely one – it is ART FOR ART’s SAKE and sometimes it is not so easily defined. Some people just won’t get it. So again I must cry out, what the Hell did I just watch? What is this film? THE HAMMER is an incredible rabbit hole with so many layers daring you to step in and make up your own mind. Let Angela Shelton’s waves crash over you with honesty, art, and brilliance. This is a film that refuses to be labeled just like the renegade filmmaker herself.

 

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    'WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH?' That is exactly the words I texted Angela Shelton, the writer / director of THE HAMMER, after it finished playing on my flat-screen. The movie she created is the most unique film you'll see this year and quite possibly ever. Is it about...