“SERVING LIFE” Review - Best Documentary Film of the Year!

“It could be me!”  

Those words best epitomize the extremely moving message behind a stunning new documentary, “SERVING LIFE,” that likely will earn executive producer/narrator Forest Whitaker his second Academy Award, this time in his role as a documentary producer. 

Serving Life Inmate in Yard

Originally conceived by Nick Stuart, President of Odyssey Networks, in conjunction with exec producer, Molly M. Fowler, the film is written and directed by Lisa R. Cohen, a superb film-maker from Winnipeg, Canada, who incisively reveals the inner torment of all-male prison inmates, most of whom are serving hard time life sentences in a maximum security facility (Angola, Louisiana) for a variety of crimes, including murder, armed robbery, and rape.  In “SERVING LIFE,” we get a glimpse into a special nucleus of prison life, specifically those lifers dying of terminal disease and the inmates selected to care for them in their final days.  The in-prison hospice program is the brainchild of an enlightened warden by the name of Burl Cain.

I personally approached the film with a great deal of ambivalence:  on the one hand, I am happy to see any social action films created in an increasingly distressed society that is drowning in mindless hedonistic mind fluff.   On the other hand, I have leaned toward the view that most hard time inmates “got what they deserved,” and, in many cases, probably deserved far worse.  By the time the film reached its final conclusion, I must say that even a hardened cynic like myself could not help but be touched to the point of tears by the epiphanies this outstanding film delivers. It is truly the kind of film that undermines entrenched opinions and changes your life!

What is most impressive about Cohen’s depiction of the Angola prison hospice is that she is not polemical in her approach, unlike less adept documentarians.  In other words, she does not take sides.  Instead, she keenly portrays her subjects in their most naked intimate moments, via astonishing close-ups where you literally feel as though you are lying in bed with them, cheek to cheek, listening to the last dying breaths, the final hoarse and tearful confessions.  Truly amazing!!

Cohen reveals the inner turmoil of the male inmate with such riveting intimate clarity that you have to wonder if, in a former life, she wandered the planet as some kind of troubled man.   I have not seen a woman show such penetrating revelations of the male psyche since Kathryn Bigelow got inside the heads of male soldiers in her own Academy Award winning creative effort, “THE HURT LOCKER.”   Except, with all due respect to Ms. Bigelow, I think Cohen brings an understanding of male emotion, both repressed and rawly expressed, that is simply second to none.

There are haunting indelible images in “SERVING LIFE” that plant themselves in your brain and refuse to dissipate.  There are scenes so emotionally impactful that they will replay in your mind endlessly.

In particular, I draw attention to the scene in which two incarcerated brothers reunite a final time, as one faces imminent death while the other is left to spend his remaining days in prison.   Given the heinous nature of their crimes, you want to hate them; yet, Cohen’s stark depiction of the humanity hidden deep within, somehow buried but never quite extinguished, compels an audience to feel for them.  The terminally ill prison patients are left to face their most severe punishment:  an encounter with the kind of compassion that, at one time, they themselves failed to show their victims because there can be no greater Hell on Earth than to live with the horror of past misdeeds, typically alone, without familial support, and recognize finally that people are fundamentally good and there is never any rationalization for brutalities visited upon innocents.  

Oak 3 dorm & field guys

We live in a world in which irrational men often commit crime and, depending upon which side of the fence you were born, you either get punished with a relatively light slap of the wrist (minimum security country club prisons for Bernie Madoff and the Wall Street crowd) or you receive  harsh retribution in crowded cells with few if any creature comforts (hard time prisons for those who effect their crimes with guns instead of computers).  “But for the Grace of God,” there are so many advantaged men in our society who could find themselves in a hard time prison someday – but it helps to be born with the right kind of silver spoon or the proper social connections to avoid the really nasty repercussions suffered by the disadvantaged in their maximum security environments. 

Because make no mistake about it…the only real distinction between a Wall Street criminal and an Angola, Louisiana prison inmate is that the violence perpetrated upon victims is more indirect in the former case than the latter.   When the Wall Street financier swindles his clients (causing loss of homes, loss of lifestyle, loss of friends, etc.) leading ultimately to a victim’s suicide, that is a violent crime no different than the Angola prison inmate who fires a bullet into some target’s head.  In the former case, the “murder” may be perpetrated in a more indirect manner, but “murder” it is, albeit in a more disguised form.

“SERVING LIFE” is one of those rare films in which this reviewer cannot find enough superlatives to describe the essence of the filmgoer experience and the impressive people involved in its production.  

A special plaudit must be sent in the direction of Forest Whitaker; as a member of Hollywood “royalty,” and beneficiary of all the money, fame, and indulgences afforded that privileged caste, Whitaker simply could have spent his remaining days living a sybaritic lifestyle at a Malibu beach house, stepping out merely to augment his wealth and acclaim via one vacuous Hollywood blockbuster after another…and assuaging any resultant guilt through one or two compulsory appearances at a rubber chicken dinner charity.   Instead, he is a passionate advocate committed to social action and humanitarian causes, not as some kind of “hobby,” but rather as a motivating ideology.  As a man who was raised in disadvantaged circumstances, Whitaker refuses to forget where he came from.  

Hospital Ward

In an after-film panel, Whitaker emphasized the things that still motivate him:  a firm conviction that we are all One...a fervent belief in redemption…and, above all...compassion.

“It could be me.”

Until we fully understand that Truth, then our evolution as a species will be stymied...and be thankful there are film-makers such as the creators of “SERVING LIFE” who devote a large chunk of their lives in reminding us of what we need to know in order to remain human, in order to transcend our own most ferocious and animalistic dark side.


Photo credit: OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network.



Producers:   Nick Stuart, Forest Whitaker, Molly M. Fowler,  Lisa R. Cohen

Writer/Director:   Lisa R. Cohen

Editor:  Pamela Scott Arnold

Narrator:  Forest Whitaker

Reviewed by:  David Cabot


Reviewed at:  the Paley Center for Media (Beverly Hills)


Premiere:  July 28, 2011  9PM  EST/PST

Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN)




Top of Page

Join Splash Magazines

Feature Article

Tempflow™ and Tempur-Pedic® Reviews - What 35 Hours of Research Uncovered

Want Your Business to Male a Splash
<!-- #wrapper -->