With McAlester’s Oklahoma State Prison Rodeo canceled this year due to state budget shortfalls, the next best thing is watching “Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo,” a documentary of the annual event’s 2007 installment. It plays Friday through Sunday the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Director Bradley Beesley is no stranger to unusual goings-on in the Sooner State, having turned his eye to outré Oklahoma subjects for his pair of “Okie Noodling” films and the definitive historical record of The Flaming Lips, “The Fearless Freaks.” Despite the abnormal nature of said subjects, his documentaries on them are always mass-audience accessible.
“Sweethearts” proves no different, taking you inside places you never want to go in real life — namely, the penitentiary. From murderers to meth dealers, the residents live behind bars for good reason, but every year, a precious few get to taste freedom — however fleeting — to take part in the prison rodeo. Established in 1940, it’s now the last of its kind in the world.
Beesley spends an hour of the film introducing us to his “stars” before allowing the arena action to consume the final third. With near-unrestricted access, he follows them as they train for the big event.
The title is a little misleading. I understand why it was chosen — as a reference to The Byrds’ classic 1968 album — but it leads one to believe “Sweethearts” is all about the ladies. In reality, it spends nearly as much time with male prisoners, although the apparent genesis of the doc is that in 2006, for the first time, the fairer sex was allowed to participate in the red-dirt ring.
Among the team members from the Eddie Warrior Women’s Correctional Center in Taft are friendly, engaging young women who bravely put on game faces although evidence of damaged hearts and souls is clear. Rhonda Buffalo and Jamie Brooks are in for murder; Crystal Herrington sold dope. Brandy “Foxie” Witte tells viewers, “When you pull up my rap sheet on the Internet, I look like a hard-core criminal. But I’m not that bad.”
All are remarkably candid and remorseful, seemingly unfazed by the ever-present camera. Because we see them participating in parole hearings and tearful reunions — and not just bucking broncos — Beesley reminds us that inmates are human, too. Yes, they may have killed someone, but a person’s still a person … and here, somewhat of a stranger to children they’ve birthed.
Not only do the women’s waitress ready smiles belie the hatchet-face stereotype of the female prisoner, but they are braver than you’d expect. As the footage demonstrates, with little to no rodeo experience, some of them show up their male counterparts, who remark, “They’re the toughest broads in the world” and “They’ve got more balls than me.”
Beesley’s film could use more cojones to provide an ending that’s more of an emotional, cathartic nutpunch, but “Sweethearts” is interesting, fulfilling and moving even without one.
For more ball-busting cinema, OKCMOA also screens the roller derby doc “Brutal Beauty: Tales of the Rose City Rollers” on Friday and Saturday.