Seattle International Film Festival: QBall

California’s San Quentin prison is where all the state’s death row inmates are housed, but there are 4000+ other prisoners, mostly men of color, who will someday get out. As the prison superintendent asks, how do we want them to rejoin society — angry, embittered, without chances? Or having had some opportunity to develop better life skills, a way to use their gifts, and with some hope that they might yet have a future?

The San Quentin Warriors, the prison’s basketball team, draws men who, in another world, might have been NBA players. They are very good, great even. At the end of their season, they play men from the Golden State Warriors of the NBA — not the Kevin Durants, but a team made up of coaches and players on the developmental leagues for the NBA team. The game is important to everyone.

QBall profiles players on the prison team, showing them as human beings who’ve made grave errors. Some have killed. Some are in prison for life due to California’s “three strike” law. They struggle to forgive themselves, and with the realization that some of the victims of their crimes, or the families of their victims, will never forgive them, never want to see them paroled.

This is a powerful documentary. At the end, one of the QBall stars gets out after serving 12 years of his sentence. He’s 31. He has a loving family who greet him just outside the prison walls and take him to eat pancakes. He’s won a tryout for the Golden State Warriors D league. He has a daughter who doesn’t know him, a child he hopes to find so he can be a good father, a responsible father.

I was thinking, as I watched, how hard it is to go from the structure and support of the prison experience — the QBall players become family to each other — to the outside world. In the credits we find that the young man doesn’t make the cut for the Warriors developmental team, not because he isn’t good but likely because he’s too old at 31. As the film ends he hasn’t yet got a job, or a place to live other than with his mother. He can’t make a single misstep, or he’ll be back in prison. He doesn’t know where his daughter is, or how to go about locating her.

He has a lot going for him, more than the average formerly incarcerated young man, but his path to a decent future seems so very, very narrow.

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