Photo Credit: StarPix
Photo Credit: StarPix

How Director Madeleine Sackler Sought Authenticity in O.G.

By Allie Waxman

In a conversation with The Vera Institute of Justice, Sackler, alongside screenwriter Stephen Belber, actor David Patrick Kelly, and activist Wesley Caines, emphasized the desire to represent a true prison experience.

O.G is a film that accurately depicts incarceration but doesn’t outwardly advocate for criminal justice reform. The film’s focus, which is to portray one man’s experience at the end of a 24-year sentence, subtly brings to light a number of issues facing incarcerated individuals on the cusp of release, including job placement, restorative justice and coping with the passage of time.

Through the eyes of Louis (Jeffrey Wright) and Beecher (Theothus Carter), it also highlights two precarious times in prison: first arriving and right before release. Following a screening for the Vera Institute of Justice, O.G. director Madeleine Sackler, screenwriter Stephen Belber, actor David Patrick Kelly, and activist and reentry expert Wesley Caines participated in a conversation moderated by Vera Institute President Nick Turner. Here are some highlights from that discussion.

The movie is anchored in truth.

“I knew that I wanted to make a film that was real,” the director explained. “As a filmmaker, I was noticing a gap between what I was observing and talking to people about, and what was being shown on the screen. Coming from the documentary space, that felt wrong to me.” Sackler added that every person interviewed in the pre-scripting phase was given one directive from prison administrators: Don’t hold back. “In the end we did about 100 hours of interviews,” noted Sackler, which she said were used to separate the truth of prison from common assumptions.

Screenwriter Belber echoed this sentiment. “I’m a big believer in research and empathy,” he said, noting that the mutual respect between Louis and Investigator Danvers was anchored in truth. “We talked to a guy in Danvers’ position [at Pendleton] and an inmate with a long sentence,” he recalled. It was clear from those discussions that a friendship would materialize.

Having been incarcerated in facilities similar to Pendleton, Caines was struck by how well-researched the film was. “It was probably one of the most realistic prison films I’ve ever seen,” he commented, adding that the prison experience is much more nuanced and complex than it’s commonly represented in the media. One surprising, but accurate, example was Louis’ mentorship of Beecher. “You captured the compassion in Louis in his caring for Beecher,” Caines said to Sackler and Belber. “It’s not something most people who have not lived this experience would understand. You have to search for meaning when you’re in that environment. Part of the way you find meaning is by looking to help the younger people around you.”

The restorative justice scene was honest … but painful.

The scene where Louis meets his victim’s sister as part of the restorative justice program was a painful reminder that some wounds don’t heal, even after the passage of time. Sackler, who is a firm believer in restorative justice, struggled to show an example of a meeting that didn’t go perfectly. When developing this scene, she wanted to emphasize “the perspective of a harmed party and the inner tension Louis was experiencing,” even if it was personally painful to Sackler. Caines concurred that it was “remarkably realistic,” explaining men he’s known who haven’t been the same for days following the interaction. “Restorative justice isn’t easy. That scene shows what’s possible but that it won’t be easy to get to that point.”